AMERICANS FLOCK TO THE SKIES IN DRONES
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.