Drone use for Columbus businesses to soar after FAA releases commercial-friendly rules

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

Pending FAA regulations for commercial use of drones leave businesses waiting with drones on the ground, ready to start checking on insurance claims, saving lives and entertaining the eye.

At the Ohio State University airport, drones are being defaced as they are flown right into the powerful suction of a jet engine. But, this is no accident-and right now, they are being defaced by virtual jet engines done through computations, not physical experiments. These tests are part of crucial research to learn all the consequences of drones before an unstoppable surge in their usage.

Columbus companies are preparing to pounce on opportunities drones can bring to business as they await Part 107, the implementation of the Federal Aviation Administration's proposed provisions for commercial use of drones-known as Unmanned Aircraft Systems or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles-this spring.

The new regulations will open a door of opportunity for the majority of US companies for which jumping through hoops to get a Section 333 FAA exemption for commercial drone use was too costly in time, skill and money. The biggest change Part 107 proposes is that commercial users will be able to operate drones without a pilot's license-though some form of test will be required.

Currently, the Section 333 exemption has allowed nine Columbus businesses to operate drones commercially and legally-as well as four other businesses in central Ohio. In total, there are 91 businesses in Ohio currently operating drones under the exemption. For the rest of Ohio's and Columbus's drone-desiring companies, like Nationwide, research is underway to have drones in the air without the exemption once FAA changes are finalized.

Nationwide is exploring the use of drones to inspect claims and expects to have them flying within six months after Part 107 is official.

"Quite simply, we believe there is a lot of potential for the use of UAS, including but not limited to use in hail storms, tornadoes, hurricanes (and) flooding," says Pete Lore, associate vice president of property technical claims at Nationwide.

According to Lore, the use of drones can speed up the claims process by days for damage done by catastrophic events and hours for home claims such as roofing damage. Nationwide drones would be able to not only identify damage, but also exact measurements and materials needed for repair.

Lore also expects a happy byproduct of drone use-enhancement of member experience by allowing members to view damage on the drone monitor.

But perhaps the biggest perk of using drones to check on claims is safety. A steep roof, for instance, poses dangers for a claims inspector-a view from above can make all the difference.

Last May, after watching a Marion Road fire that lasted for more than two days and caught an entire block on fire, Aaron Herron, a firefighter at the City of Columbus Fire Department's Station 12, was propelled to look into drones as his station's next firefighting tool.

Herron and his chiefs are debating the features of the optimal firefighting drone. Photo and video capabilities are a must to see where fires are most concentrated so the team can focus extinguishing efforts. However, the firefighting drone could also host a thermal imaging camera in order to confirm concentration areas and display a fire's exact temperatures.

Located on Sullivant Avenue in the Hilltop, Herron's station is one of the busiest in Columbus given the demographic and age of homes nearby, making Station 12 a fitting place to start drone use to save lives and property. Columbus Fire is unsure how many drones they will utilize and whether every station would use them, but Station 12 is poised to be the first, likely within a year. Five members of the Station 12 crew have expressed interest in drone operation training in order to ensure all units-or shifts-of the station's 24-hour schedule are covered.

Though Columbus Fire is waiting to see what exactly will be passed with Part 107, playing the waiting game wasn't their only choice. In Texas, the Austin Fire Department recently became the first metro fire department in the country to receive a Certification of Authorization from the FAA.

A COA authorizes specific unmanned aircraft activity to a public operator and consequently, Columbus Fire could apply for a 333 exemption or COA to get drones up in the air before Part 107 is added to FAA regulations. However, Herron notes the department is waiting to see exactly what Part 107 will entail-there may be a chance the department could avoid the hoops of applying for a 333 exemption or COA by operating under Part 107.

Other industries are also playing the waiting game. Amazon was unavailable for comment on when the company may begin package delivery via drones and whether two fulfillment centers to be established in central Ohio would be involved.

But for some, the mentality is "why wait?" when the FAA's definition of commercial use is ambiguous. General aerial video is the top use of drones in the US, with agriculture and public safety coming in second and third.

Flying Under the Radar

A handful of Columbus businesses have sidestepped the FAA's current regulations banning commercial use of drones for those without a 333 exemption by not charging clients for value added drone services.

One is Mills James, a creative media company.

Mike Meyer, an editor and producer at Mills James, not only sees free drone services as a way to dodge any trouble with the FAA-but also a way to accrue a large clientele for when drones can be operated commercially without a 333 waiver, projected for this spring.

"I'll go out and just do a lot of stuff for free. I was down shooting the winter park for the Blue Jackets and I did it for free," says Meyer. "What goes around comes around. You know, maybe next time they need a promotional video, who are they going to call? Hopefully us."

Meyer isn't alone in using complimentary drone services as a business strategy.

Michael Walker, owner of Iconic Media, a video production company in Pataskala, has included free drone services in customers' video packages for two and half years, weather and location permitting. He has shot approximately 45 weddings using drones in addition to ground videography, putting a $1,000 DJI Phantom 2 to good use.

"It's a big selling point for the grooms and a lot of people will contact us specifically because they know that we do aerial videography," says Walker.

Iconic Media intends to continue free drone services for weddings even after Part 107 is in place-though Walker suspects he will start charging corporate clients for drone services after proposed changes are implemented.

Milton Sutton, Jr., senior associate at Frost Brown Todd's Columbus office, claims that if drone services aren't paid for, they most likely would not be considered commercial by the FAA.On the other hand, James Mackler, a Nashville-based attorney at Frost Brown Todd who frequents the Columbus office, contends that any benefit to the client, unpaid or not, would be considered commercial use.

For industries such as roofing, realty and agriculture, commercial use appears to be even more ambiguous considering drone use may not directly benefit a client.

Brian Davis started using a drone a year ago for his company, Davis Roofing and Restoration. The tool comes in handy for homes that are large or have steep roofs-about 50 percent of the homes Davis works on.

Although Davis has registered his drone for hobby use, he does not have a Section 333 exemption.

"I wasn't aware that I had to have an actual pilot's license. I think that's kind of extreme ... it sounds very extreme actually," says Davis.

Extreme or not, getting a pilot's license involves a minimum of 40 hours of flight time and costs range anywhere from $7,000 to $10,000.

Meyer agrees that a pilot's license is a stretch since drones are not manned vehicles, but notes that's exactly why the FAA is in the midst of changes.

"They're really trying," says Meyer, "and I think they're trying to be more reasonable with this commercial use, lifting that requisition."

Meanwhile, farmers are using drones for ground penetration to inform agricultural decisions.

"You can fly planes or use spacecraft using radar to look through trees to see what the state of the ground is under the tree. You can penetrate into the ground and get information about water under the surface," says David Williams, dean of the College of Engineering at the Ohio State University.

Using drones saves farmers from sending a large check to NASA.

"(Ground penetration) really started with satellite observations of the earth, but satellites are expensive," says Williams. "Now you can do it just in your own fields rather than paying for a NASA download from it."

The Hobby Lobby

Part 107 isn't just about sky-high business opportunities; it's about reversing what some say is backwards treatment of hobbyists versus businesspersons.

Allowed to fly model airplanes for decades, hobbyists claim that a heightened sophistication of model aircraft should not infringe on their hobby.

"In many states across the country, (states have) attempted to put laws in the books that are more restrictive on these devices and this hobby lobby that exists is extremely powerful. (The hobbyists' lobby has) pretty much pushed back very successfully all across the country against (the states), so they have an extremely powerful lobby," says Sutton.

Despite the power of the lobby, hobbyists must follow basic guidelines such as not flying higher than 400 feet, not flying within five nautical miles of an airport and giving way to all manned vehicles-though these guidelines are often violated.

"If you look at some of this crazy stuff people are putting on YouTube, (they are) just idiots that have these things that are flying them over traffic on freeways, over fires preventing copters from getting to the hospital … just all this crazy stuff, I don't know how you control that," says Meyer.

For those reasons, Meyer considers the fact that hobbyists are allowed to fly at the moment while companies are not an odd reversal, noting that companies would likely have a stronger sense of responsibility than hobbyists using drones. And responsibility is key in what Meyer calls the "Wild West."

Law of Land and Air

Crowding the sky after Part 107's release is a safety and legal concern. The law of the land does not necessarily translate to the law of the air.

"Most states have laws in the books that protect privacy and property such as anti-surveillance, trespassing and reckless endangerment laws, for instance, that can be used if someone does act recklessly," says Sutton. "If they were flying a drone right outside of your window, for instance, at home, one of these laws could be used and there is an expectation of privacy for that. But, there's a lot out there … that is really free and open and needs to be more heavily defined."

And because drone laws are up in the air, cases could be made for drone users and those who claim their property and privacy have been violated.

"If I was defending someone flying their drone outside of someone's window, my defense is going to be that that aircraft is in what the FAA defined as federal, navigable airspace and that there is no state jurisdiction to prosecute that crime," says Mackler.

Private property is typically not marked as a no-fly zone on the FAA's app, B4UFly, which can be downloaded to see air restrictions before hobbyist or commercial drone flights. What will show up under no-fly zones are airspaces within a five-mile nautical radius of airports and sensitive sites such as high-security government buildings.

Though there is not a protocol for contacting the owners of land an operator flies over, some businesses prefer to be safe than sorry.

"I really try … and get permission and check, wherever I can, to make sure that people know what's going on-and I've been in touch with Robert Strausbaugh, the commander of the Columbus (police) precinct Downtown, when I debate flying Downtown," says Meyer.

Danger Zone

Though drones are a strategic safety measure in industries such as realty, roofing, insurance and firefighting, they pose danger to spectators above and below.

One of 15 core universities in the FAA's Alliance for System Safety of UAS through Research Excellence, Ohio State is testing outcomes of potential collisions. ASSURE also includes associate members from three countries and more than 100 government and industry partners. Ohio State is the only research university with its own airport in the program, making it stand out in its potential for a unique research contribution to the FAA.

"We look at some of the worst-case scenarios (like) what happens to a jet engine if a drone's ingested into the engine, and is the design of the jet engine such that while it might close the engine down, it doesn't cause the plane to crash-which is the ultimate worry," says Williams.

While Ohio State's ASSURE team is testing jet engine ingestion of drones computationally, they are capable of testing such instances under controlled conditions with an actual jet engine. Funding for such costly testing is undetermined.

Ohio State's ASSURE program will use drones to monitor Lake Erie's algal bloom, which last year the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration called potentially the largest and most devastating rapid increase in algae in recent history.

For Herron of Station 12, final drone plans rest on conditions. A fire site poses threats to drones such as melting or obstructed camera vision from smoke. But one obstacle Columbus Fire won't have to consider in research is interference with manned aircraft.

Although the Section 333 exemption states that all drones must remain clear of and give way to all manned aircraft, the FAA has informed Columbus Fire that manned aircraft would give way to the department's firefighting drone because of its lifesaving capabilities.

On the Horizon

Observers say the passing of laws on unmanned aircraft is just about to begin.

"We recently filed a case in the western district of Kentucky on behalf of … a hobbyist (who) was flying and a neighbor shot (his drown) down with a shotgun," says Mackler. "That's a case that made its way into the federal courts now because we're asking the federal court judge to define the boundaries of federal airspace versus private property for the purposes of trespass and invasion of privacy."

As definitions are confirmed, the Wild West of drones will become a little less wild.

"It is the first case in the federal courts addressing the interaction of private property rights, personal privacy and the right to navigate federal airspace and unmanned aircraft," says Mackler.

Sutton and Mackler agree the FAA's next concern after releasing Part 107 will be microdrones.

"The FAA has already announced the creation of a taskforce to create rules for microUAS-and a microUAS can be under 4.4 pounds," says Mackler. "If that's coming, that will be a whole new rulemaking process that will probably have a little bit less restriction than the current class (of small UAS, ranging from 0.55 to 55 pounds)."

Regardless of what comes next, doors are opening for business-literally.

Seeing the interest in drones filming wedding and corporate video, Walker will open another business, The Sleek Geeks.

The Sleek Geeks will retail drones and offer drone repair on East Main Street in Reynoldsburg. Planning to welcome customers by early April, Walker's store couldn't come at a better time with Part 107 ready to breach.

"I think there's a whole bunch of opportunities to use these machines in ways we've never even thought of," says Williams.

"Any change (in) technology does change the job market, only we never quite know what kind of jobs it will take over, but in turn, it brings different jobs," Williams adds. "So, my suspicion is it won't stop Amazon deliveries by UPS. My suspicion is it won't put wedding photographers out of business. It will add to what these various companies can provide to the consumer."

Julie France is editorial assistant.

Disclaimer:Accompanying this article is a photo illustration of The City of Columbus Division of Fire's future drone use featuring firefighter Aaron Herron. The Division of Fire is not using drones at this time. The drone pictured was lent by Michael Walker, owner of Iconic Media, and may not be the exact model of drone that the Division of Fire will operate once drone use is implemented.