WASHINGTON — Four companies won approval Wednesday to fly commercial drones to conduct aerial surveys, monitor construction sites and inspect oil flare stacks, the Federal Aviation Administration announced.
The approvals for Trimble Navigation Limited (TRMB), VDOS Global, Clayco Inc. and Woolpert Inc. come as the FAA drafts comprehensive regulations for drones to share the skies with passenger planes.
“The FAA’s first priority is the safety of our nation’s aviation system,” FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said. “Today’s exemptions are a step toward integrating (unmanned aerial systems) operations safely.”
Michael Toscano, CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, called the FAA action a positive step, but that the agency needs to complete its regulations to allow broader use of drones.
Amazon threatens to take more drone research offshore. “We are excited to see the FAA grant these exemptions for commercial use of (drones) and to being to unlock the various benefits of this technology,” Toscano said.
The latest exemptions from a general ban follow seven in September to film and video companies. The first commercial drone permit over land came in June, when BP oil company and drone manufacturer Aero-Vironment were approved to fly aerial surveys over Alaska’s North Slope.
But the developing industry, with high-profile members such as Amazon studying drones for package deliveries, is eager to expand commercial uses. The FAA has received 167 applications for commercial uses.
At a House hearing Wednesday, the Government Accountability projected that FAA regulations governing drones weighing up to 55 pounds might not be finalized until 2017 or later.
“We agree that we need to speed this up a little bit,” Peggy Gilligan, FAA’s associate administrator for aviation safety, told the hearing.
The FAA is expected to release the proposal this month. But the proposal is expected to generate tens of thousands of public comments, which the agency must review for potential changes in its proposal.
In a letter this week to the FAA, Amazon said its indoor testing of drones must now move outdoors to practice in real-world conditions. Paul Misener, the company’s vice president of global public policy, said the company might move its research abroad.
The FAA has been developing rules for drones since Congress set a deadline of September 2015. The agency set up six experimental sites across the country to learn more about how they operate.
The key safety element is to prevent drones from colliding with other aircraft, or with people on the ground. That means ensuring ways for other aircraft to detect and avoid drones, and for drones to land safely if they lose contact with remote pilots.
Up to now, hobbyists could fly drones close to the ground, and researchers or public-safety groups could ask for special permission to fly higher or in riskier situations.
According to their FAA applications:
• Trimble’s UX5 drone weighs 5.5 pounds and performs precision aerial surveys by taking digital photographs.
• VDOS plans to fly Aeryon SkyRanger drones to inspect flare stacks for Shell Oil in the Gulf of Mexico.
• Clayco plans to fly Skycatch multi-rotor drones to survey construction sites.
• Woolpert plans to fly Altavian Nova Block III drones, which weigh 15 pounds and are 5 feet long with a 9-foot wing span, to map rural Ohio and Ship Island, Miss.
Drones “will change the way we conduct some of our existing business in the not-too-distant future, but more importantly, will create completely new and world-changing applications we haven’t even thought of yet,” said Jeff Lovin, a Woolpert senior vice president.