Local businesses ready to fly under new FAA drone rules

WASHINGTON — Several Washington-area businesses are anxious to get flying, days after new rules from the Federal Aviation Administration make it easier and faster to navigate the process of getting a permit to use drones for commercial purposes.

Real estate, aerial photography, construction and farming are some of the industries that will benefit from new regulations that free them from requesting time-consuming special waivers to use the unmanned aerial vehicles.

“We’ve been waiting a long time for the FAA to come through with these new rules, so we can fly,” said real estate photographer Ralph Cocco, of Pix N Palette Photography in Loudoun County, Virginia.

Cocco and other business owners say they’ve been hamstrung by previous rules that made it more difficult to fly drones for commercial purposes.

“That has been the big problem in the past — you had to literally be a certified pilot to fly these things,” said Cocco.

Under the new rules, anyone over age 16 can take an aeronautical knowledge test at an FAA-approved facility and pass a background check to qualify for a remote pilot certificate.

That’s not to say applying for the certificate is easy, said Jason Hettmansperger, an application developer with Arlington-based interactive mapping company Blue Raster.

“The new Part 107, the full PDF file, is 624 pages long,” said Hettmansperger, of the FAA’s final rule on commercial drone use. “That’s not hardly digestible by any one person.”

Cocco said the aeronautical knowledge test is challenging.

“Some of the questions, from what I’ve seen, you almost have to be a certified pilot to answer them,” he said. “So, I’m not sure how that’s going to work for people like me, who have no experience.”

Cocco said he and his son will work together to master the drone certification process.

“As a matter of fact, I’m looking out the window right now, watching him fly it,” he laughed.

Photography is instrumental in selling a house, said Cocco.

“Whenever anybody’s out looking for a home, the first thing they want to do is see photos of the exteriors, interiors, any of the amenities that have been installed,” said Cocco. “That’s the way it’s done nowadays in the real estate business.”

Video from a drone will help people buying or selling a home, especially larger single-family houses.

“You’ve got to have acreage to really get a good view of the home, and that’s where aerial photography will come in,” said Cocco.

Blue Raster founder and principal Michael Lippmann, said that in the past, getting an image of an area of interest required a satellite or aerial flight. That was costly, and clouds and other atmospheric conditions meant you couldn’t get a guarantee that your images would be sharp.

“With a drone, you can fly below the clouds and capture an area rapidly and frequently and immediately analyze it,” Lippmann said.

“You can take imagery and have a map out of the same day,” Hettmansperger said.

While companies can apply for waivers, under the FAA rules a drone must be flown during the day, under 400 feet, and within sight of the operator.

Initially, Hettmansperger’s company will use a DJI quadcopter, with models that begin under $1,000, which has made them a favorite with hobbyists.

“At 400 feet, on a fairly flat area, you can get several hundred acres,” said Hettmansperger.

Rules for flying drones commercially are much more lax outside the United States.

“Using mobile apps available today, you can program a drone to automatically fly over an area and capture ultrahigh quality images ready for analysis,” said Lippmann.

“Drone2Map allows us to import it and immediately create 3D models and analysis of the area,” said Lippmann. “We have already used it with our clients, including the Jane Goodall Institute to assess chimpanzee habitat,” in Tanzania.

Hettmansperger said the drone is surprisingly easy to operate.

“I’ve played a bit of video games, so I’m used to manipulating controls with my thumbs,” he said. “It’s really not that scary, because if it’s getting out of hand you just stop what you’re doing, and the drone just hovers.”

Lippmann, who has operated a drone for fun as a hobbyist, said the technology does not come without risks as well as benefits.

“Talk to anyone with a drone and they will tell you about a near miss, or a time their drone was damaged, so it will be important to manage this as more and more drones take to the skies to deliver packages, inspect construction and agriculture, and even fight wildfires,” he said.

“It’s an exciting new area to be involved in and we are just at the beginning of what will be possible,” said Lippmann.

Copyright © 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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