New drone rules for entrepreneurs to level playing field

New rules should make it easier for people to make money flying drones

Since Terry Kilby founded his drone photography company in Owings Mills four years ago, he says, he has been careful to follow the labyrinthine process to get permission from federal authorities to fly legally.

The process was so frustrating, he says, some companies decided to ignore the rules — making it harder for law-abiding entrepreneurs to compete.

But by the end of the summer, those headaches should be swept away. On Tuesday, the Obama administration announced the first rules to allow the commercial use of small drones.

"We're looking forward to having everybody on the same playing field," Kilby said.

The Federal Aviation Administration rules, which follow years of debate, will streamline the permitting process to fly a drone, but keep in place limits on how high, fast and far the small, unmanned aircraft can fly. The rules, which take effect in late August, will govern aircraft that weigh less than 55 pounds.

Hundreds of thousands of small drones have been sold in the United States in recent years, but most are being flown as toys.

Fewer than 200 Marylanders have signed up to use a drone commercially. The Obama administration expressed hope Tuesday that the new rules will open up opportunities in agriculture, construction and scientific research.

"We are part of a new era in aviation, and the potential for unmanned aircraft will make it safer and easier to do certain jobs, gather information, and deploy disaster relief," Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a statement. "We look forward to working with the aviation community to support innovation, while maintaining our standards as the safest and most complex airspace in the world."

Trade groups and drone manufacturers welcomed the publication of the rules. Maryland officials say the state is well-positioned to take advantage of the growing drone industry.

In a recent report, the Maryland Commerce Department said the state could boost the industry by funding testing, connecting startups with investors and helping turn federal research into business ideas.

Matt Scassero, the director of the University of Maryland drone testing center in St. Mary's County, called the publication of the rules "hugely significant."

Pilots have reported hundreds of encounters with unmanned aircraft to the FAA, and developing rules for drones to fly safely alongside manned aircraft has proved difficult. Pilots rely on being able to see obstacles and avoid them. That's difficult to do when flying a drone from the ground.

The new rules will require commercial drone operators to pass a written test and background check, stay away from people and airports and fly at lower altitudes than manned aircraft.

"With this new rule, we are taking a careful and deliberate approach that balances the need to deploy this new technology with the FAA's mission to protect public safety," FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said. "But this is just our first step. We're already working on additional rules that will expand the range of operations."

Many of the provisions in the rules can be waived if operators can provide regulators with data to show they can fly safely without them. Scassero said that should open the way for drone users to fly farther than they can see.

"To really do some of the economical uses of UAS," he said, using the abbreviation for umanned aerial systems, "you would need to go beyond line of sight."

Brian Wynne, president of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, called the regulations a milestone.

"Whether it's aiding search-and-rescue missions, advancing scientific research, responding to natural disasters, or helping farmers care for their crops, UAS are capable of saving time, saving money and most importantly, saving lives," he said in a statement.

The association has estimated that drone businesses could create 100,000 jobs over the course of a decade.

Kilby, whose company is called Elevated Element, said the rule should make it easier to get into the business.

Elevated Element focuses on video production. Kilby is looking at ways to combine aerial footage with 3D models to help construction projects.

A new demonstration video he produced shows buildings rising over real images of Port Covington, where Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank is planning a multibillion-dollar development.

The FAA has been allowing some businesses to fly drones if they applied for special permission. That will no longer be necessary when the new rules take effect.

Operators will be able to get a special drone permit instead of a pilot's license to fly. The number of ground crew required will also be cut.

Enforcing the new rules will fall on the FAA, but the agency is asking local police for help. FAA spokesman Les Dorr said anyone who sees someone flying a drone dangerously should call local police, who can pass information on to the agency. The FAA has the power to impose fines and other penalties.

Officials called the regulations a first step toward integrating unmanned aircraft into America's carefully controlled skies. The next move could be to develop ways to fly larger drones, such as those used by the military.

Researchers at the University of Maryland drone test site are looking at advanced uses of unmanned aircraft. Scassero said the new rule could make it easier for more groups to innovate.

"It allows other people to get into the same area a little bit," he said.

iduncan@baltsun.com

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