BY JEFF WILKINSON
The drone business is about to take off in South Carolina.
Changes to Federal Aviation Administration regulations that went into effect Aug. 30 are opening up the industry to a new group of entrepreneurs who can perform a wide spectrum of jobs, from inspecting solar panels to 3-D mapping of large land tracts.
The new regulations removed a requirement that commercial operators have a pilot’s license or be accompanied by a pilot, instead only requiring a “remote pilot airman certificate” issued by the FAA. Three weeks after the new rules went into effect, more than 12,000 remote pilots nationally passed the certification test, according to the agency.
“The challenge is that the industry is so new,” said Eric Harkins, who started his Columbia-based Back Forty Aerial Solutions business this past summer. “Everybody knows videos and photos. But they don’t know all the other stuff they can do.”
Among the other uses are infrared photography, search and rescue, conservation efforts, wildlife management and law enforcement.
“For instance, if a farmer has a hog problem, we can direct depredation hunters,” Harkins said. “And drones can also be used to track fugitives.”
New companies every month
The Bloomberg news service reported in May the drone business is expected to rocket more than 6,000 percent by the end of the decade. It anticipated the devices will soon be boosting crop yields, verifying insurance claims and shooting Hollywood movies.
In a report compiled by PricewaterhouseCoopers, the global market for commercial drone technology is expected to skyrocket to $127 billion worldwide by 2020, from about $2 billion today, Bloomberg reported.
Skyview Aerial Solutions of Summerville is one of the largest and most active drone companies in South Carolina. It has a staff of four operators and nine drones. It has been operating for three years and landed big contracts, such as documenting the construction of the Volvo plant and the Omni Industrial Park in Berkeley County and the Mercedes plant in North Charleston.
The company also performs “forensic engineering” projects in South Carolina, North Carolina and Georgia, said chief executive Tom Fernandez. Those projects involve engineers using drones to document failing roofs, buildings and other challenges.
Fernandez said he “lost track” of the number of drone companies in July at 107. He estimates two or three new companies pop up every month.
“We share information when we can, and hire other drone companies,” he said. “Not everyone will do that. But we can because we are the big player because of the amount of revenue we bring in.”
This past summer, Harkins organized the South Carolina UAV Operators Alliance. UAV stands for unmanned aerial vehicles.
The group has 78 members in the state, including professionals and hobbyists, Harkins said.
“And we’re getting more every day,” he said. “I’m all about growing the industry. There’s no reason South Carolina can’t be the next big drone bed.”
Drones range in size from about a half-pound to 55 pounds – the maximum allowed by law. Anything larger than that is considered a remotely piloted aircraft, and requires additional documentation to register with the FAA
Some of the largest remotely controlled vehicles are used for military purposes.
For instance, Shaw Air Force Base is being considered as a home for an MQ-9 Reaper wing that would control from the United States remote aircraft flying air strikes in Afghanistan and the Middle East, as well as other missions around the world. The aircraft are known as “hunter-killers” and can carry a wide range of ordnance, such as missiles and machine guns.
The Air Force frowns on the term “drone,” spokesman Ben Newell told The State newspaper in September, because the MQ-9 is a propeller-driven, fixed wing aircraft that doesn’t hover. It is about the same size as a civilian Cessna airplane.
Harkins has five drones, ranging in price from $700 to $20,000.
“Some are not that expensive,” he said. “The sensors are where the cost goes up.”
Harkins said he charges $225 an hour for his video services, and has performed 69 flights since he went into business eight months ago. He had a licensed pilot with him for the flights before the regulations changed.
Most of the work Harkins does now involves standard video and photography, he said, such as promotional footage he shot inside Williams-Brice Stadium for the University of South Carolina.
But don’t expect drones to be zipping anywhere near the stadium on game day. There are strict no-fly zones, including airspace above 400 feet, airspace near an airport, military bases, national parks, large public events, some metropolitan areas and areas with high government activity, like the State House.
Two bills prefiled in the S.C. General Assembly would outlaw flying drones over prisons and military installations, but Harkin said he believes those bills are superfluous to federal law.
In case you’re not sure where those no-fly lines might be, drones are programmed to automatically stop and hover when they reach them.
“It’s a self-imposed geofence,” Harkins said.
‘Don’t get too excited’
On the flip side, shooting a drone is a federal crime carrying penalties of up to 20 years in prison, the same as any other aircraft. The thought is that shooting a drone could cause it to veer into another aircraft, or injure someone on the ground, according to the FAA.
He added that drones have a public benefit that has so far gone untapped in South Carolina. For example, during Hurricane Matthew, the S.C. UAV Operators Alliance had 17 teams ready to deploy across the state to assist government agencies.
“However, our teams were never activated” by state officials, he said.
Harkins took a winding road into the drone business.
He attended USC, where he studied history and geography, then received a bachelors degree from Clemson University in forest resource management. He went on to work in information technologies for Westinghouse, GIS mapping for the city of Columbia, and a variety of other jobs from forestry to real estate.
He said he wanted to go into the drone business because it’s exciting, it’s growing and it is an extension of his eclectic professional background.
“I’ve got a lot of different skill sets that just all came together,” he said. “This is exciting to me. And I don’t ever get bored.”
Fernandez advised new operators like Harkins not to get too wrapped up in the technology and the fun of flying.
“Avoid becoming too excited about the drone,” he said. “A drone company is just like any company. It’s about building relationships. Stick to basic business principles and you’ll do well.”
RULES FOR DRONES
▪ Drones have to be registered with the FAA. Registration costs $5.
▪ Flying an unregistered drone carries civil penalties of up to $27,500.
▪ Drones have to remain in the pilot’s visual line of sight
▪ Pilots must be at least 16 years old
▪ Operation is allowed only during daylight hours or twilight with appropriate lighting
▪ Maximum ground speed of 100 mph and maximum altitude of 400 feet
▪ For commecial operation, pilots must hold a “remote pilot airman certificate” issued by the FAA.
▪ It is a federal crime to shoot a drone, carrying a penalty of up to 20 years in prison, same as any aircraft