Corporate Aviation Ponders the Drone Tidal Wave

Reprinted from AIN Online

Robert Young, the CEO of PrecisionHawk, a company that provides aerial data and analytics to the insurance, construction, energy and farming industries, made an interesting observation during the first meeting of the Drone Advisory Committee (DAC). The DAC is a blue-ribbon panel the FAA formed to advise it on safely introducing small unmanned aircraft systems—better known as drones—into the national airspace system; it held its inaugural gathering in Washington, D.C., in September.

“We’re really talking about the world of flying robots,” Young remarked. With the FAA expecting that millions of drones will enter the airspace in the coming years, “how do we integrate the national airspace into the flying robots?” he asked. “Have you thought about it from that perspective?”

Young’s suggestion that drones may flip the airspace system itself on its head was lighthearted, but the point was not lost on his colleagues. In a presentation to the committee, Earl Lawrence, director of the FAA’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Integration Office, said the number of new registrations filed for recreational and commercial small drones was unprecedented in the agency’s experience. Nine months after its on-line drone registry went live in December 2015, 550,748 hobbyists had registered to fly one or more drones apiece (the FAAestimates three)—more than double the nation’s 260,165 registered manned aircraft.

In the three weeks since the FAA’s new Part 107 regulation for the commercial use of drones had taken effect on August 29, 13,710 people had applied for remote-pilot certificates under the rule, and 5,080 had passed the required aeronautical knowledge test. At the rate they were being granted, the FAA expected the number of certificates will exceed its forecast of 16,000 this year, and it estimated that the commercial drone fleet will range from 33,000 to 617,000 units. The agency projects there will be upward of 1.3 million certificated drone pilots by 2020.

“It’s more than our traditional aviation profile,” Lawrence said of the drone phenomenon. “The community is much larger and more diverse. What’s really unique is the sheer volume of operations and [their] personal nature.”

Insight into the composition of the remote-pilot population might be drawn from the 5,521 commercial exemptions the FAA granted before Part 107 took effect. More than 90 percent of the entities receiving those exemptions—made possible under the Section 333 provision of FAA reauthorization legislation—were small businesses, according to an analysis by the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI). Among the applicants, 3,635 were entities with less than 10 employees; 1,046 were individuals.

Jonathan Rupprecht, an aviation attorney, author and FAA-certified flight instructor based in West Palm Beach, Fla., observed that the first wave of drone pilots includes many “61ers,” a reference to people who already hold a pilot certificate under FAA Part 61 flight-training regulations. Under Part 107, they can obtain a remote-pilot certificate by completing an online training course to achieve a small-UAS rating; non-pilots must pay $150 and pass the Unmanned Aircraft General (UAG) test at one of 696 FAA-certified testing centers.

“More than 50 percent are 61ers right now,” said Rupprecht, who compared the number of UAG tests new entrants passed with the number of licensed pilots who applied for remote-pilot certificates through the FAA’s Integrated Airman Certification and Rating Application (IACRA) web portal. “Maybe one reason for that is a lot of the people that are dying to get into the [drone] sector or have been in the sector are pilots.” They may have started operating drones for compensation under a Section 333 exemption, then come forward to earn their remote-pilot wings under Part 107, he surmised.

Rupprecht said he has advised utilities and other large companies on establishing small-drone operations, but not corporate flight departments.

“The larger companies are interested in setting up enterprise operations at a really high level, like 100-plus pilots across the United States,” he related. “I don’t know how many of them have actually reached out to their internal flight departments. Originally, how these drone operations seem to start is there is a tech guy or a tech department that is looking on the horizon for new technology at a lower cost. They tend to be much more creative, so they don’t really focus on the regulations. There are issues with, where do you put the [drone] department, is it going into the aviation department? Is it going to stay in the tech department? The infighting tends to be one big problem for integration with the bigger companies. They just don’t know what to do internally.”

That comports with what Brad Hayden, president and CEO of Albuquerque-based Robotic Skies, has observed of the emerging commercial industry. Hayden, who is also the president of Kings Avionics, a private pilot and a first-person-view drone pilot, has organized a worldwide network of 130 Service Centers capable of repairing and maintaining commercial drones. He is moderating a panel, “The Nuts and Bolt of Operating a Corporate UAS Operations,” here at NBAA 2016.

The commercial drone operations Hayden has observed are typically located with the IT department or some other branch of a large company. They may interact with the flight department and adopt its operating procedures, but by and large they remain separate organizations.

“It’s all over the map right now where they’re putting these operations,” Hayden said. “For the longest time, pilots who were flying a Falcon [jet] or something for an enterprise—they were afraid of risking their certificate on flying some kind of drone operation and somehow breaking a reg.”

From the opposite perspective, another department within an enterprise—for example, the division of an agricultural company responsible for sourcing a crop-spraying or aerial-imaging drone—may not know to involve the flight department in its planning. “If you look at what drones are being used for in particular right now, it’s all about collecting data,” Hayden said. “Well that’s being done out in the field. If you look at an ag company, the corporate flight department usually isn’t even involved with one of their divisions when it selects a crop sprayer or something like that. They may not have any kind of oversight into how that ag flyer is chosen.”

Ultimately, managers will bring flight departments into the process out of concern for liability, or outsource their drone requirements to qualified operators, Hayden believes. The commercial market will inevitably evolve and become more structured, but for now it remains an open frontier.

“It’s almost like every man now suddenly has access to an aircraft, which is actually what this whole phenomenon is all about right? Suddenly you can empower people in the field to use aviation to be more efficient,” said Hayden.

Bill Carey is an AIN senior editor based in Washington, D.C., and the author of Enter the Drones: The FAA and UAVs in America, released by Schiffer Publishing in July.