AMER­I­CANS FLOCK TO THE SKIES IN DRONES

Winnipeg Free Press - Section D - - GPS - ALAN LEVIN

THOU­SANDS

More than 3,300 signed up to take the test on Mon­day, the first day it was avail­able, and the Fed­eral Avi­a­tion Ad­min­is­tra­tion es­ti­mates the num­ber of drone op­er­a­tors-for-hire may ex­ceed the na­tion’s 171,000 pri­vate pi­lots within a year.

“The sky is go­ing to open up at the end of Au­gust for a lot of op­por­tu­ni­ties,” said Randy Yates of Omaha, Neb., who planned to take the FAA exam this week so his com­pany, Na­tional Prop­erty In­spec­tions Inc., can use the de­vices for view­ing rooftops and other dif­fi­cult-to-reach lo­ca­tions. “It’s go­ing to be a whole new world.”

The first ma­jor reg­u­la­tions gov­ern­ing civil­ian drone op­er­a­tions in the U.S. took ef­fect Mon­day and per­mit any­one 16 or older to fly for hire if they pass a writ­ten knowl­edge test and back­ground check. They can only fly drones dur­ing day­light, within sight, and no higher than 122 me­tres from the ground.

The rules re­place ad hoc stan­dards and a sys­tem of waivers that the in­dus­try said had hin­dered its growth. The rules don’t ap­ply to hob­by­ists, who can fly with­out a li­cence.

“Th­ese air­craft truly have the po­ten­tial to trans­form how we fly and they also of­fer many po­ten­tial ben­e­fits to so­ci­ety,” Sec­re­tary of Trans­porta­tion An­thony Foxx said at a brief­ing on the new law.

The ap­peal is clear. Drones can be used by farm­ers to mon­i­tor fields, by telecom com­pa­nies to in­spect cell­phone tow­ers, and by me­dia out­lets to video­tape news events — of­ten with greater ease and lower cost than us­ing he­li­copters or fixed-wing air­craft. In­dus­try of­fi­cials pre­dicted in­surance, con­struc­tion, agri­cul­ture and elec­tri­cal power com­pa­nies, which have been cau­tiously ex­plor­ing ap­pli­ca­tions for unmanned air­craft, would now leap into such op­er­a­tions. The reg­u­la­tions also open the door to more small op­er­a­tors and ser­vice com­pa­nies that fly drones for hire, they said.

Be­fore now, the FAA had re­quired com­mer­cial drone op­er­a­tors to have a tra­di­tional pi­lots li­cence, some­thing that takes months and costs thou­sands of dol­lars to ob­tain. Now they sim­ply have to pass a test cost­ing $150, though some are opt­ing to pay more for study cour­ses.

Larry McInnes, a Bos­ton res­i­dent, has pinned his fu­ture ca­reer hopes to the exam.

McInnes learned ear­lier this year that his job as a court re­porter was be­ing phased out. He had an in­ter­est in drone pho­tog­ra­phy, but be­fore the FAA an­nounced its new rules he didn’t think it was fea­si­ble for him to qual­ify un­der the agency’s waiver pro­gram.

“Now that the FAA has changed the rules as far as com­mer­cial fly­ing, it looks like there could very well be a big po­ten­tial for change in my ca­reer di­rec­tion,” he said.

At least some in the drone in­dus­try worry the gov­ern­ment won’t be able to keep up with de­mand, or that the flood of new users may not have the skills nec­es­sary to safely fly un­der the new rules. Un­like ev­ery other pi­lot cer­ti­fi­ca­tion is­sued by the FAA, the agency chose not to re­quire that drone op­er­a­tors demon­strate their fly­ing skills.

“Why would you ever have a driver’s li­cence if you had never been in a car, a pi­lot’s li­cence if you had never been in a plane?” said Keven Gam­bold, chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer of Unmanned Ex­perts Inc. in Den­ver.

“And yet now not only do you get a UAV li­cence, you get a com­mer­cial li­cence,” Gam­bold said, re­fer­ring to drones as unmanned aerial ve­hi­cles. His com­pany sells drone ser­vices such as bridge in­spec­tions and also of­fers train­ing cour­ses.

Many won­der how the FAA will han­dle an ex­pected flood of re­quests for ex­panded uses of drones. Be­cause the tech­nol­ogy is evolv­ing so rapidly, the agency said it will grant waivers for op­er­a­tions out­side the new lim­its if ap­pli­cants could prove they would be safe.

In the mean­time, thou­sands of peo­ple who just want to fly un­der the new rules are pre­par­ing to take the tests at about 700 lo­ca­tions around the U.S.

DartDrones, a Woburn, Mass.-based train­ing com­pany, has seen a steep in­crease in in­ter­est in its train­ing since the FAA un­veiled its new reg­u­la­tions in June, said Abby Spe­icher, chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer of the com­pany.

“Ev­ery­one was pretty much in a frenzy try­ing to fig­ure out how to study for the test,” Spe­icher said.

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