Saturday, June 21, 2014

Georgia is prepared to be a player when the drone industry takes off

ATLANTA | Georgia universities and companies are revving their engines and prepared to soar the moment the Federal Aviation Administration approves the commercial use of unmanned aerial vehicles although other practical hurdles could be as significant.

That was the message from experts meeting last week in an international conference of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics meeting in Atlanta.

“The state is working on creating an environment that’s good for our companies so that when the FAA does pull the switch, we can pull out and start doing these commercially and that our companies here in the state will be ready, both with the product and the service companies and we’ll have people trained to fly and service those vehicles across the board,” said Steve Justice, executive director of the Georgia Center of Innovation for Aerospace.

Even though commercial drone operation isn’t legal, there are already firms here flying the planes legally for research purposes. Area-I is a 6-year-old company in Kennesaw that partners with Middle Georgia State College and uses its academic exemption to test composite materials and airframe designs for NASA and the Department of Defense.

“We’re not just doing paper studies. We intend to take these on and fly them,” said Nick Alley, president of Area-I.

Other companies are doing engineering or at least investigating the concept for inspecting electrical-transmission wires, imagining crops and news coverage.

The FAA recognizes there are also firms illegally using the vehicles to photograph real estate, inspect roofs and such. In the last two years, airline pilots reported an average of one drone spotted in commercial air space per month, but that has risen six fold recently.

By 2018, the agency expects as many as 7,500 commercial drones operating and 30,000 by 2030.

The agency is drafting proposed regulations for release by year end to permit regular commercial operations. In the meantime, it allows commercial operation in Alaska and began to accept applications this month for expedited permission for special uses such as for movie production or smokestack inspections without having to stop operations as is the case for manned vehicles. And it has set aside six sights where testing is allowed without the lengthy process for special permits.

Alley wants FAA to allow flights in rural areas now. But Elizabeth Soltys, FAA’s program director over the six test sites, said even rural areas have power lines and people on the ground who expect the agency to safeguard their safety.

Getting investors and insurance are two other factors that could slow commercial application.

About one-third of the states have passed laws aimed at protecting the privacy of property owners on the ground from overhead snooping, with a similar bill introduced in Georgia this year.

“You can’t just assume that everybody is enthusiastic,” said Morgan Cloud, a law professor at Emory University. “Many people are terrified.”

The uncertainty about the eventual federal regulations, new state laws and how the courts will treat suits against drone operators are keeping major investors on the sidelines.

“It’s really hard to make a case for venture capital because we don’t know what the rules are going to be,” Justice said.


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