The Federal Aviation Administration announced new rules regarding the use of unmanned aircraft systems for commercial purposes last week. And it couldn’t have come soon enough.

“Finally, you’re seeing the FAA come to grips with providing a rule set they were directed to four years ago,” said Mike Elliott, founder of Honolulu-based Drone Services Hawaii.

Commonly referred to as drones to the chagrin of many experts, unmanned aircraft systems, or UAS, certainly have captured the imagination of the public, whether as revolutionary tools that can transform whole industries or as nefarious agents of surveillance. But while they have been getting easier to buy or even build, it has been difficult to use them for more than recreation.

A drone hovers over the 2015 Geek Meet at Kapiolani Park.
A drone hovers over the 2015 Geek Meet at Kapiolani Park. Ryan Ozawa

The new rules, referred to as Part 107 of the nation’s federal aviation regulations, are poised to change that.

“The floodgates have opened,” said local aerial and underwater photographer John Johnson. “I think you will see a massive rush to capitalize on it.”

Elliott agreed. “I think it’s a great thing,” he said. “Commercial drone operations do provide a value and a benefit to business and the public.”

Not So Fast

The new rules were a long time coming. Congress called on the FAA to integrate UAS into the nation’s airspace in 2012 when enthusiasts already were clamoring for a path forward. But the agency missed its three-year deadline to do so, meanwhile working through a patchwork of Section 333 exemptions — case-by-case approvals for commercial UAS operations.

To say there was pent-up demand to use UAS for business would be an understatement. When the FAA released the first draft of its commercial UAS rules last February, the agency was flooded with feedback.

“There were some 34,000 responses to the draft, including mine, all of which had to be reviewed — and many hearings,” said Ted Ralston, a UAS expert and engineer with more than 40 years of experience in the aerospace industry.

Kualoa Ranch and Kaaawa Valley in windward Oahu as photographed from a drone. John Johnson/One Breath Photo

In the meantime, the FAA faced a growing backlog of Section 333 exemption requests, with more than 7,000 in queue at the time the new rules were announced. But Ralston stressed that a long wait comes with the formal process involved in creating new federal laws. He said that the FAA has been both responsive and committed to meeting its directive.

“Currently, 10,000 users have achieved exemption or are in the queue, perhaps 50 to 75 in Hawaii,” Ralston said.

The new rules take up 624 pages and experts like Ralston are still working to process them all. While their release is widely seen as good news to those who fly or want to fly UAS for commercial purposes, Ralston said they won’t lead to a free-for-all with a drone in every home.

“There will be no more of a floodgate than we have seen with the ‘Section 333 Exemption’ created by FAA as a temporary workaround several years ago,” Ralston said. “It is not a walk in the park, it is serious aviating — controlled and observed.”

The More Things Change

The new rules govern “non-hobbyist small unmanned aircraft,” defined in part as those weighing less than 55 pounds. This would include popular camera-toting quadcopters like DJI’s Phantom line, now sold in electronics and department stores alike.

The biggest change is removing a requirement that UAS pilots have a pilot’s license. Instead, the FAA will grant Operator Certificates under Part 107 to people who take and pass a written test.

A drone’s-eye-view of the construction at Ala Moana Center in 2014.
A drone’s-eye-view of the construction at Ala Moana Center in 2014. Ryan Ozawa

“Having an operator certificate does not mean you can operate in some new, free way, there are still the basic requirements that must be met,” Ralston cautioned.

These requirements include flying only during daytime and within line of sight, for example, and avoiding airports and other restricted airspace. In fact, Ralston outlined a couple of ways in which the new rules may make things harder for would-be UAS pilots.

New Drone Rules

“In some respects, achieving an operator certificate under Part 107 may slow things down, as each operator has to take a test, while under the Section 333 exemption, 99 percent of them were achieved by proxy — just hiring an exemption writer,” Ralston said.

“The increased difficulty and ‘transactional mental capital’ of getting an operator certificate and keeping it current will also be a bit of a deterrent,” he added, saying that people interested in the end product — say, aerial photography — may find it easier to hire a UAS service than to go to the trouble of getting an FAA certificate. 

Opportunities Aloft

Commercial drone pilots are counting on businesses and other clients to hire them to fly drones for them, rather than do it themselves. But as it gets easier to get started, it may get harder to stand out.

“It’s the Wild West.” said Johnson, who launched One Breath Photo more than a decade ago. “Like photography in general, you are going to find a lot of people that are serious players and invest in their art and craft. But the barriers to entry are low and competition from the cheap GoPro dabblers will provide an individually short-lived but long-term source of competition.”

Johnson pointed to the popularity of aerial photography in real-estate sales as one of the first arenas in the UAS business.

“I imagine a number of larger firms will do it in-house, but some of the others will outsource the work, and those that outsource have no metric for measuring the quality of the companies offering these services,” he said. “Many will gravitate towards lower prices and more fly-by-nighters who don’t know how to properly value the work.”

Johnson said cheaper outfits probably won’t survive in the long run, but may still starve more specialized companies, which will have to diversify to survive.

“I think a company that offers the best variety of services will do best long-term, because they can survive a dip in sales in one area or another while the market forces weed out the non-serious players,” he said.

Elliott, who started Drone Services Hawaii out of his garage after retiring from the Navy, agreed that much of the benefit of the new rules comes from “low-end type of work,” like real estate jobs. But it also frees up resources for a small company like his.

“Requiring a pilot was a constraint, requiring a visual observer — that’s one extra person that now does not have to be on site,” he said. “I can now do jobs in parallel instead of in series, and do in one week what would have taken a month and a half.”

Estin Ma of Drone Services Hawaii completes repairs to the stabilization gimbal of a drone.
Estin Ma of Drone Services Hawaii completes repairs to the stabilization gimbal of a drone. Ryan Ozawa

Elliott said he could conceivably do five simple jobs in a day, but still have a bigger team available for more complex work, such as those that require waivers and other specialized skills. A recent example was capturing aerial video of the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument, home to the USS Arizona Memorial, as well as the USS Missouri and historic Ford Island.

“I’d worked over there before I retired, so knew the folks and understood the process by which you could operate there, but never a drone,” he said. “It took time, working with the base, the FAA … and that day we were very methodical, with six personnel, all focused on safety.”

His team knew they had a limited opportunity for some of the shots, but were lucky to have a “perfect, beautiful low-wind day” for the job. The footage will be included in a new documentary being produced by the World War II Foundation for the 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Building Trust

Elliott foresees a day when drones are seamlessly integrated into the nation’s airspace along with commercial and military aircraft.

“It becomes the standard and norm instead of the exception, and nobody will think twice about it,” he said. “You’ll see heavy use by public agencies. … There’s a great public use to systems that do jobs that are dull, dangerous and dirty.”

But he and Ralston know that it will take time for communities to adapt.

An aerial video drone set up on historic Ford Island to capture footage of Pearl Harbor for an upcoming World War II documentary.
An aerial video drone set up on historic Ford Island to capture footage of Pearl Harbor for an upcoming World War II documentary. Mike Elliott/Drone Services Hawaii

“You need a proven track record with technology before it gets introduced,” Elliott said, pointing to the advancements in driverless cars as a similar example. “But you’ll see some of these things, in the next five years, become mainstream.”

“For things to get real, users will have to become fully trusting in their service, to the same level we are trusting in our phones, cars, computers,” Ralston said. “It must always work, just like it did the last time, and it must be able to be ridden hard and put away wet, taking a licking and still be ticking.”

Meanwhile, Ralston said that the rapid adoption of drones is driving a paradoxical new industry: counter-drone systems to detect, track, and even disable or defeat unauthorized or unwanted UAS.

“Local law enforcement here has been asking about this for a year or more, event promoters who do not want to be bothered, and movie makers are not interested in having a drone come over the set to see what’s going on,” Ralston said, adding, “Waikiki hotels are starting to ask what can be done about nuisance drones. … Watch this space!”

Up And To The Right

While UAS advocates and opponents tussle over policy, local pilots are keeping busy.

Ralston continues to connect public and private organizations to promote UAS operations in academic research, disaster preparedness and emergency response. He noted that Hawaii’s designation as part of the federal Pan-Pacific UAS Test Range Complex gives our state a chance to stake out a leadership position in this space.

Drones can provide unique aerial views of real estate, like this oceanfront property in Aina Haina.
Drones can provide unique aerial views of real estate, like this oceanfront property in Aina Haina. Michael Torres

“No money was provided by the FAA, nor specific work orders or tasking, so the challenge is that success or failure is up to the states to figure out,” he said. “We need all the moxie we can muster locally to pull abreast with, and then ahead of, the others.”

Johnson continues his photography work across the islands, but as competition grows, he is working on carving out a niche.

“I am looking forward to building and modifying drones for a purpose, whether it be rescue or research,” he said. “Having a 20-year background in underwater photography, I am interested in using drones to collect data that could be used to protect our ocean resources.”

And Elliott is close to securing funding to expand his business to Maui. He has jobs lined up that range from remote sensor surveys on the neighbor islands to aerial videography for the World Surf League in Fiji. All on top of selling and repairing quadcopters at his small shop inside the Battery Bill store on Dillingham Boulevard.

“I almost feel like Santa Claus everyday,” he said. “At the end of the day it’s a lot of fun.”

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