Commercial drones cleared for takeoff

In the past year, videographer Julian Gilliam says he’s received at least five offers from Realtors to shoot drone footage, but federal regulations put a strain on commercial use.

Until now.

The Federal Aviation Administration announced Tuesday a new category of aviation rules designed for drones weighing less than 55 pounds. Commercial operators may fly drones without special permission.

“It will open up possibilities for us,” said Gilliam, owner of 10th Letter Media on Kauai.

Gilliam, whose bulk of business involves weddings, said the new rules will mean less red tape to go through to operate a drone commercially.

“I think it’s definitely a good thing,” he said. “I was going to get the original FAA license but that needed to involve lawyers and it was just a strenuous thing.”

Commercial operators can now register their drones online and pass an aviation knowledge exam for drone pilots at an FAA-approved testing center.

“It’s going to decrease the time to get (certified) from six months to about a week,” said Aaron Begle, Hawaii Drone Academy director of operations. “It’s going to decrease the cost significantly because instead of having drone operators who actually have pilot licenses — which can range upwards of $10,000 — they’ll have an airman certificate, which is only about $150.”

Jim Wheatley, Realtor for Oceanfront Sotheby’s International Realty, said the new rules could be beneficial for his industry.

“Obviously it’s good for presentations, but also for surveying and other uses,” Wheatley said. “Before drones, I would have to rent a lift if I wanted to see second-story view from a certain piece of property. Nowadays, I can fly a drone 20, 25 feet and that would give people the potential view from a building site.”

Others, however, believe the new rules won’t affect those who plan to use drone footage for their businesses.

“I don’t see how really making a definitive line of what’s legal or what’s not legal is going to give much business to companies,” said Difraser, owner of Kauai Video Productions. “As far as weddings are concerned, as far as corporate events are concerned, I don’t think it will make much difference.”

Julie Black, principal broker and owner of Kauai Dreams Realty, said more drone operators able to shoot commercial footage would mean less of a wait time to produce videos of high-end properties to market to potential clients.

Until now, commercial operators had to apply for a waiver from rules that govern manned aircraft, a process that can be time-consuming and expensive.

Additionally, operators would have to follow many of the rules that apply to model aircraft hobbyists: keeping drones within sight at all times, not flying over people and flying drones no higher than 400 feet are among the FAA rules.

“If you’re near an airport, the drone won’t even take off,” Gilliam said. “If you’re in an area, like Salt Pond, where the planes are coming low, you are limited to how high you can go.”

Other limitations that remain in place include flights permitted only during the day and during twilight.

Operators could still seek waivers to restrictions like nighttime flights, flights beyond sight of the operator and flights over people.

Critics argue an enforcement mechanism is missing from the rules.

“It is hard to see how the (FAA) actually can ensure that these rules are followed,” said Sarah Kreps, a Cornell University professor.

In April, FAA officials said they were working on regulations that would permit some commercial drones to fly over people and crowds based on recommendations from an industry advisory committee.

Since 2014, the FAA granted more than 6,100 waivers and another 7,600 are waiting for approval. Many more small companies have been using drones without FAA permission, according to industry officials.

“This is a watershed moment in how advanced technology can improve lives,” said Brendan Schulman, a vice president at DJI, the world’s largest civilian drone-maker.

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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