CHARLESTON, SC. The business of flying drones is in its early days in Charleston, but under new federal rules, the industry may be ready to take off.
The Federal Aviation Administration loosened its requirements Monday for flying drones commercially, making it cheaper and easier for businesses to get the go-ahead to use small unmanned aircraft.
The more flexible rules are expected to give the young drone industry a boost after years of having to get permission to fly on a case-by-case basis. The FAA expects as many as 600,000 commercial drones to be in the air within a year, and a trade group predicts that the industry will employ some 100,000 people within a decade.
“That was really a nightmare to deal with,” said J. Brooks Davis, a Mount Pleasant attorney who focuses on aviation law, of the process of getting permission. “They’ve eased up on the rules a little bit.”
Businesses used to have to apply with the FAA for an exemption to its rules to fly drones, and they were limited to a handful of approved uses, such as inspecting buildings and taking pictures. The new rules, known as Part 107, keep most of those requirements intact, but the time-consuming process of applying for an exemption is gone.
And drone pilots no longer have to be licensed to fly a plane. Operators now only have to pass a test and clear a background check, cutting the expensive process of becoming a traditional pilot.
“In a nutshell, what the rule provides is for routine commercial drone operations within certain limitations,” FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said Monday. “We believe that it will allow innovation to flourish while maintaining the highest levels of safety in the world’s busiest and most complex aviation system.”
The technology has uses in a broad swath of industries. Real estate agents use drones to advertise property, utilities use them to inspect power lines and pipelines, and farmers use them to monitor their crops. And they’re expected to eventually spread into more widespread uses, like delivering packages.
The changes may not take long to move the needle. More than 3,300 people were scheduled to take the test to be drone operators on Monday, the first day it was offered, Bloomberg reported, including several in the Lowcountry.
At Trident Technical College, which administers tests for the FAA in the Lowcountry, interest has picked up in anticipation of the new rules, said spokesman David Hansen. Eleven people were scheduled to take the test this week, with at least two more on deck in the coming weeks. Mount Pleasant-based Coastal Aviation, the region’s other testing center, couldn’t be reached for comment.
The number of test takers suggests the handful of drone companies in the Charleston area may soon have company. Even the biggest firms flying drones here commercially have only a handful of employees, and competition has been limited by the steep requirements, said Tom Fernandez, CEO of Summerville-based SkyView Aerial Solutions.
But now that they don’t need to hire operators licensed to fly planes or to apply for a rules exemption known as Section 333, he expects newcomers to emerge.
“The biggest barrier for entry has been the regulation, getting the 333 (exemption), needing a pilot’s license,” Fernandez said. “There sure are going to be a lot of extra players entering, or trying to enter, the market.”
Still, the process of writing up rules for drones is hardly finished, and their operators still face limitations. Pilots can only fly in the daytime, in lightly populated areas and up to 400 feet. Their drones have to be within sight, and they can’t go faster than 100 miles per hour.
But Huerta said the FAA was working on rules regulating drones that fly over groups of people and out of their operators’ sight, and the agency is now open to easing its rules even more if companies can show their flights will be safe. The agency green-lighted 76 exemptions to the new rules Monday, mostly letting pilots fly at night.
And for existing drone companies, the new rules should make day-to-day work easier, from getting pilots cleared to fly to telling authorities about their plans.
For his part, Fernandez said the simpler rules will give SkyView more flexibility to pick up a project on short notice and clear several bureaucratic hurdles for flights. And the changes have helped the company land a deal with an undisclosed customer that he says will roughly quadruple business — from seven or so jobs a week to five or more a day.
“Now that it’s all changing, it’s a big weight off of our shoulders,” Fernandez said. “These rules today have been a long time coming.”
Reach Thad Moore at 843-937-5703 or on Twitter @thadmoore.