At least one local business is planning to fly drones over Baltimore after a judge ruled that there is no law prohibiting the commercial use of small unmanned aircraft.
Terry Kilby, who with his wife, Belinda, published a book last year of aerial photographs of the city taken by unmanned aircraft, said Friday that they would launch their "rent-a-drone" operation next week.
"It's really a great day for all of us that are in this industry," he said. "We've seen lots of companies go bankrupt waiting for this to happen, and it's a nice relief now to see this."
The plan follows the ruling this week by a National Transportation Safety Board judge against the Federal Aviation Administration, a decision that drone advocates said would increase pressure on the government to open U.S. airspace to unmanned aircraft.
"The FAA has to do something sooner than later," said Michael Toscano, president and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, a trade group. "There's already an industry forming itself, and it's a lot harder to get your hands around it after it's already established as opposed to before it gets established."
The FAA had fined a Swiss drone operator $10,000 for flying a camera-mounted aircraft over the University of Virginia in 2011 for pay. But in a decision issued Thursday, NTSB Judge Patrick Geraghty concluded that there was "no enforceable FAA rule" prohibiting such an operation and threw out the fine.
The FAA said Friday that it is appealing the decision to the full National Transportation Safety Board, a move it said would stay the decision. Advocates for unmanned aircraft systems, as the industry prefers to call them, want the agency to finalize long-awaited regulations to govern the operation of drones.
In other countries, unmanned aircraft are being used to monitor crops, monitor oil spills and conduct search-and-rescue missions. In the United States, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has described plans to use drones to deliver orders, and Google and Facebook have invested in drones but are waiting for regulations before they can begin operating.
"The industry that wants to make money off of this new technology, they are definitely pushing the FAA," said Matthew Scassero, director of the state's unmanned aircraft systems test site at the University of Maryland. "Without the FAA's OK — and blatant, black-and-white rule-making that it's OK — they really are limited."
Congress has given the FAA until Sept. 30, 2015, to come up with a plan to safely integrate drones into U.S. airspace. The agency expects to propose regulations for small unmanned aircraft — those under 55 pounds — later this year.
"This is all about safety," Toscano said. "The first time the fertilizer hits the ventilation with one of these systems, they're going to come back to the FAA and say, 'How did you let this happen?' We need to make sure we understand the operational environment in which we're flying these things."
Advocates say drones will revolutionize the economy. Scassero, a former naval aviator, has likened their eventual impact to that of the automobile a century ago.
The FAA says as many as 7,500 small commercial drones could be flying in the United States by 2018. AUVSI, Toscano's group, projects that unmanned aircraft will create 100,000 jobs and $82 billion in economic activity in the decade after U.S. airspace is opened.
In Maryland, home to several drone manufacturers, AUVSI estimates the impact at 2,500 jobs and $2 billion. As the FAA studies unmanned aircraft safety, Maryland has signed an agreement with New Jersey and Virginia to collaborate on research.
Scassero predicted that Geraghty's decision would embolden some.
"The small companies, the people who are already out there kind of operating, I think it does empower them to some extent," Scassero said. "I don't know so much that it does it legally, but it does give them a spirit that since there is now at least a precedent that says there's no rules out there, that they can push the boundaries a little further.
"I don't think it clearly black-and-white comes out and says, 'Go operate commercially.' But it definitely gives them some leeway that I know they feel they can go out and play with."
Toscano said operators need guidance from the FAA.
"The rule may be that [FAA regulators] don't need to get involved," he said. "The determination may be that the FAA can say that if you're below 400 feet, daylight only, line of sight, you can govern yourselves. But they have to come out and say that."
Terry Kilby is ready for the future now. He filed papers for his Elevated Element LLC with the Maryland Department of Assessments and Taxation on Friday and was undaunted by news that the FAA is appealing Geraghty's decision.
"The fact remains that they've never issued official regulations," he said. "So as far as I'm concerned, this does not affect our plans. We're still going to move forward."
The Kilbys, who operate out of the garage of their Owings Mills home, have long planned to offer their drones for commercial photography. But in the absence of rules, they have limited their business to designing and selling the aircraft.
They also run Baltimore Drones, a group of 150 or so members that meets monthly, and last year published "Drone Art: Baltimore," which includes photographs of the Washington Monument, the Natty Boh sign and other local landmarks.
"We've literally been waiting on the sidelines for four years now," he said. "I don't think it's something that our government should try to get in the way of. We're in the middle of an economic recovery here and we're lagging behind the rest of the world."
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