Drone industry awaits direction
By Mike Wereschagin
Published: Saturday, Dec. 14, 2013, 9:30 p.m.
Clete Isenberg watched from the ground as his camera-equipped, six-bladed helicopter drone rose into the night sky to film a fireworks display over Finleyville.
Suddenly, three police cars pulled up behind him. The officers asked if he knew anything about a strange object hovering in the darkness. Alarmed spectators had spotted his drone and called 911.
“They thought it was a UFO,” said Isenberg, 54, of South Park.
In a few years, the sight won't seem so strange, say industry analysts and drone owners. A growing number of civilians are building, buying and flying sophisticated unmanned vehicles. Some newcomers are hobbyists, but others — including farmers, real estate professionals, photographers and even Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos — say they could make money with the technology if federal regulators allow it.
The global market for drones likely will double from $5.2 billion to $11.6 billion by 2023, aerospace and defense industry analysts at the Teal Group estimated in a study released in June.
“The technology is not the problem. It's society and the legal issues surrounding this,” said Ricky Houghton, vice president of the Pittsburgh chapter of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.
Safety and privacy are top concerns. Congress required the Federal Aviation Administration to figure out how to integrate drones into the national airspace system by the end of 2015.
“Over the next several years, the FAA will establish regulations and standards for the safe integration of remote-piloted UAS (unmanned aerial systems) to meet increased demand,” FAA spokesman Jim Peters said. “Autonomous UAS operation is not currently allowed in the United States.”
Forty-two states, including Pennsylvania, considered laws this year to ban or restrict drone use within their borders, the American Civil Liberties Union said. Eight states enacted laws; Pennsylvania did not.
Most states with laws limit drone use by law enforcement, the ACLU said. Privacy advocates say drones offer an inexpensive, easy way to monitor large numbers of people. They can loiter overhead longer than manned helicopters, quietly and more cheaply.
The machines go far beyond the capabilities of simple remote-control airplanes or toy helicopters. They can be loaded with sophisticated stabilization and control systems, imaging and sensor technology and satellite guidance chips, and operators can program their multithousand-dollar creations to perform a host of money-making tasks.
Some drone operators coordinate swarms of tiny vehicles, lit with LEDs, to fly in intricate patterns such as a smiling face or rotating cube, Houghton said.
“What if you put this over a Steelers game and advertised Coca-Cola? There's noise pollution. There's light pollution. Are they allowed to fly this down your street?” Houghton asked.
Isenberg said he understands the FAA's worry, particularly regarding safety. His drone can carry as much as 8 pounds of cargo. If someone were to load it with high explosives, they could execute a devastating remote attack, he said.
Accidents are another concern, Houghton said.
“If you put one of these things in a jet engine, that engine's dead,” Houghton said.
But unmanned drones could take over dangerous work performed by manned machines, such as inspecting power transmission towers and high-tension wires — something Isenberg used to do for a West Virginia utility.
Isenberg attached an infrared camera to a controllable mount on the drone and charged the utility $300 per tower, compared with helicopter crews who charged $3,000 an hour for the inspections, he said. After a few months, the utility stopped doing business with him, citing the FAA ban.
“I lost a lot of work,” Isenberg said.
Isenberg's six-propeller drone can reach an altitude of one mile and fly as fast as 40 mph. It's about 3 feet in diameter, and each propeller is 12 inches across. The battery allows it to fly for up to 25 minutes, he said.
He can plot dozens of waypoints in the drone's navigation system, which the drone will travel to automatically at whatever speed and altitude he chooses. When it reaches the last waypoint, or if it loses its connection with the controller, it's programmed to fly back to its launch point, he said.
He paid $11,000 for it two years ago and planned to start a side business to complement his income as an electrician and home inspector. Isenberg said he has recorded weddings, photographed parcels of land, shot videos of golf course fairways for commercials and put together videos of high-end homes for sale.
“The whole ... industry really is up in arms” over the FAA ban, Houghton said. “Their biggest priority is safety. They're not really concerned about the business.”
The potential benefits are too big to ignore, he and others said.
Bezos' proposal to deliver Amazon's goods by drone is too far-fetched to become reality soon, Houghton said, but numerous industries await the chance to deploy these craft when it's legal. Farmers, for example, fly camera-equipped drones over crops to monitor irrigation, yield and plant health.
“The money is there,” Houghton said. “The business model is there.”
Mike Wereschagin is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7900 or email@example.com.
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