Drone entrepreneurs want business to take flight

Entrepreneurs are eager to employ drones in everything from agriculture to search and rescue. But they're awaiting federal rules governing their commercial use.

“In the first 10 years, once we have regulations to fly, we’ll create $83 billion dollars in economic value, just for this industry alone — 103,000 new jobs,” said Brian Wynne, president and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI).

The trade group is holding its annual “Unmanned Systems” show in Atlanta, where companies of all sizes are showcasing the latest drone technology and how it could be put to commercial use once the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) gives the go-ahead. FAA officials are in the process of evaluating public comments on proposed drone rules.

“Integrating unmanned aircraft into our airspace is a very, very big job,” said FAA Administrator Michael Huerta. “And it's one that we at the FAA are determined to get right.”

Speaking at the trade show, FAA officials announced that they are expanding research with three private companies to explore the use of commercial drones over crowds, as well as their operation in rural or remote areas beyond the pilot’s line-of-sight. The research may eventually pave the way for the routine use of drones to apply pesticides to crops, inspect railroads and utility lines and deliver packages within minutes to an address or GPS location.

“You can be at the beach, or at a park or on the road,” said Helen Greiner, CEO of CyPhy Works, a drone manufacturer. “With your cellphone GPS, the drone can deliver to wherever you are.”

In 1990, Greiner co-founded iRobot, the company that produces the popular “Roomba” automated vacuum cleaner.  Some 25 years later, her new company has launched a Kickstarter campaign to crowdsource funding for an aerial photography drone geared toward consumers.

The drone, called “LVL 1” is controlled by a smartphone app. It allows the operator to set up virtual boundaries called “geo-fences” to keep the drone away from specified areas.

Drone manufacturers are also developing object avoidance systems to prevent collisions. Recent headlines of drones coming into close proximity of commercial aircraft are often cited during discussions on regulation.

But Colin Guinn, chief revenue officer of drone manufacturer 3D Robotics (3DR), hopes that federal regulators will move quickly to ease restrictions on smaller devices. According to Guinn, drones weighing less than two kilograms (about four and a half pounds) would pose less risk in a collision than their larger counterparts, which can weigh up to 55 pounds or more.

"Realtors, roof inspectors, power line inspection or wind turbine, inspecting cell phone towers — there are so many things that these sub-two kilogram machines can do,” Guinn said. “Let’s get those out in the world. Let’s get people using those for commercial purposes.”

As the FAA considers rules for the commercial use of drones, the agency announced it’s developing a smartphone app to help hobbyists determine whether they’re in a location that’s safe and legal to fly unmanned aircraft recreationally. Agency officials said they plan to begin beta testing their “B4UFLY” app this summer.

Under current guidelines, recreational operators are required to fly drones and model airplanes no higher than 400 feet, keep them within eyesight and obtain permission from air traffic controllers before flying within five miles of an airport.

This week, the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) released new research suggesting that, under ideal regulatory conditions, the U.S. could have as many as 1 million unmanned aircraft flights per day within the next 20 years.