Getting a Commercial Drone Business Off the Ground


NEW YORK (MainStreet) — The drone rush is on. Entrepreneurs looking to get in on The Next Big Thing are scrambling to get their drone operations off the ground. Now, if only the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) would stop dragging its feet.

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This week, the University of Alaska's unmanned aircraft system (UAS) became the second of six FAA test sites to become operational. The project is seeking to prove how drones can accurately locate, identify, and survey large wild animals. Other test sites with varying UAS purposes will be located in Nevada, New York's Griffiss International Airport, North Dakota, Texas A&M University in Corpus Christi and Virginia Tech.

"These test sites will give us valuable information about how best to ensure the safe introduction of this advanced technology into our nation's skies," Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a release announcing the sites in December.

"These vehicles are revolutionary, I think we all understand that," FAA Director Mark Huerta said at a press conference during the rollout of the Alaska test site. "We all see the potential but we need to make sure that pilots are properly trained and we also need to make sure that unmanned aircraft sense and avoid other aircraft and that they operate safely if they lose the link to their operator."

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The Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Integration which operates the University of Alaska's drone program has a list of projects including volcano flybys and marine mammal surveying that collects data by flying through whale spouts.

While Amazon, FedEx and even Domino's Pizza have made PR splashes with their drone dreams, today's UAS entrepreneurs aren't waiting for federal approval to launch their endeavors. A Little Rock, Ark. television station used a photographer's personal drone to obtain aerial footage of tornado damage from recent storms. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reports he is being investigated by the FAA.

According to the Los Angeles Times, the movie production company Flying-Cam shot drone footage for more than 80 films in the U.S. – and won an Oscar for its efforts in 1995 – before the FAA ban moved its operations overseas, where commercial drone flights are frequently permitted.

The Times says the FAA has certified more than 600 public-sector entities to pilot drones, primarily law enforcement agencies and universities.

The non-profit Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) says the commercialization of drones will create more than 100,000 new jobs and spur an economic impact of $82 billion in the first 10 years following legalization.

"UAS have enormous potential to benefit our lives," AUVSI President and CEO Michael Toscano writes in a statement. "This technology has the ability to transform the way many industries operate, whether helping farmers better survey their fields, assisting search and rescue missions or providing real estate agents with new vantage points. Delays in the rulemaking process have slowed the integration process, keeping these industries on the sidelines. Every year that integration is delayed, the United States loses more than $10 billion in potential economic impact. This translates to a loss of $27.6 million per day that UAS are not integrated."

--Written by Hal M. Bundrick for MainStreet

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