Unmanned aerial vehicle (aka drones) are not just for hobbyists or taking videos of football games.
A drone forum hosted Tuesday night in Durham by WRAL TechWire highlighted the possibilities of a technology that’s still in its infancy but was punctuated by a disagreement about the legality of commercial drone flight.
The takeaway: When a drone leaves the ground it is mired in many legal and ethical challenges, and different entrepreneurs, legislatures and federal and state agencies approach those in different ways.
Bob Young, the CEO of Raleigh-based drone company PrecisionHawk and Tuesday’s keynote speaker, said his company’s drone could save billions of dollars in agricultural costs by giving farmers more efficient solutions to common problems in crops, such as bugs or water levels. Drone technology is providing new ways to survey crop fields and collect data, but he said his product isn’t really about drones at all.
“We don’t want a drone,” Young told the crowd. “We don’t even want the data. We want answers to problems.”
Dustin Manning was listening to Young and the slate of speakers that included lawyers, lawmakers and entrepreneurs. Manning works for Raleigh-based Stewart Engineering. He said the company is looking into drone technology partly to be able to mitigate some of the costs associated with inspecting structures.
Manning said Stewart Engineering currently contracts with helicopters, which can cost around $800 per hour. But a drone could fit under a bridge or in a confined space for a fraction of the cost and with less environmental impact.
What Manning was really interested in, though, was the law.
State and federal laws are trying to keep up with the boom of the drone business – PrecisionHawk employs 100 people already and could easily double that by this time next year, Young said – but the current process to legally fly a drone is slow.
The Federal Aviation Administration requires drones used for commercial purposes to obtain exemptions for certain activities, such as flying at night, news gathering or building inspections. The state of North Carolina also has a certification test, which panelist Chris Gibson compared to a driver’s license test.
Gibson works with the N.C. Department of Transportation’s aviation division. Tuesday’s most contentious topic came when Gibson disagreed with Aerial Look CEO Robert Koenekamp who said an FAA exemption was not required to fly drones commercially. Koenekamp said his company, which takes aerial photos of real estate, has been operating without an exemption.
The FAA does not have the staff to handle the influx of drone-related work, Gibson said, but the law is clear.
“In order to operate for a commercial purpose in the airspace, you need an exemption,” Gibson said.