ORLANDO, Fla.—Representatives of drone manufacturers, distributors and dealers say that getting the information that businesses need to enable safe and lawful drone flights is difficult at best.
In addition, some sellers of drones simply don’t have staff trained to provide help. In a few cases, drone dealers are intentionally passing out erroneous information on regulations and restrictions regarding commercial drone use in an effort to get a quick sale, according to industry authorities.
Fortunately, many of the dealers and others at the Drone Dealers Expo here are trying to provide the best advice they can to their business customers. But everyone here that I spoke to agreed that the Federal Aviation Administration really needs to provide consistent and coherent information on what the rules are, who the rules apply to and under what circumstances do they take effect.
Much of the confusion stems from the recently published rules for drone registration that went into effect in December, 2015. Those rules were for drones intended for hobbyists or other private uses. The online drone registration forms lay out the proper uses and other rules very clearly.
Many users think they also apply to commercial drone use, but they don’t. Business users expose themselves to fines and potential criminal action if they try to use the consumer registration rules for a drone used for business purposes.
While the FAA has published rules governing commercial drone use, a number of drone operators I talked to at the conference say that those rules are very difficult for end users and many dealers to understand.
Furthermore, Section 333 of the federal aviation regulations does not cover all of the rules concerning drone usage. As a result, some end users have backed away from using drones, some have decided to ignore the rules, and some just can’t figure out what to do and are just hoping for the best when flying a commercial drone.
“Businesses need to find a subject matter expert,” said Jennifer Patterson, Unmanned Aerial Vehicle category manager for Wynit Distribution in Syracuse, New York. Patterson said that a number of drone experts, notably former military drone operators, have set up consultancies designed to help businesses figure out how to operate drones legally. She also noted that it’s critical for potential business users to receive training in both the operation and use of drones, including training in the rules.
Key among those rules is the requirement to register drones used for business and to make sure that they have a qualified person at the controls.
“What I’m seeing is that over 50 percent of people who purchase the products don’t even know there’s a registration requirement,” said Christopher LoPresti, chief pilot of Terrestrial Imaging, a commercial drone service operating near New York City. “For those that are aware of the registration process, the majority aren’t aware of the difference between commercial and recreational drone use,” LoPresti said.
LoPresti said that he suspects that many of the drone users that are unaware of the rules are hobbyists who decide to earn a few dollars with their hobby drone by performing aerial photography such as photos for real estate agents.
Lack of Clear Flight Rules Hampers Commercial Drone Adoption
He said that in his presentations to such agents, he’s constantly informing them about the rules for drones and of the consequences of failing to follow them.
Adding to the confusion are state and local rules for operating drones. Liz Pelzel, channel marketing manager for drone maker Parrot, said that when people actually realize that there are drone flight rules, most people just think about the federal regulations, not the local rules. She used the area near her home in San Francisco as an example. “On the very local level, the city parks are regulated,” she explained, “but I wouldn’t know where to go for that.”
Pelzel said that people don’t know where to drill down to find the information they need or even how it applies to their drone use. As a result, she said, she frequently sees people flying drones in a park near the Presidio, a former military base in San Francisco, which is one of the areas where drone use isn’t allowed. “Knowing that you have to seek information is quite a challenge,” she added.
So the question becomes, with all of this missing, confusing and sometimes contradictory information, where do you find out what the rules are? Unfortunately, even that isn’t always clear.
You may not be able to find out if you buy your drone from a big box store such as Best Buy, Costco or Walmart because their employees have little or no knowledge. While some big retailers do provide training, you have to depend on catching the right employee at the right time and hope they were trained on commercial drone use.
However, one option is to hire a licensed commercial drone operator such as LoPresti and have them do the flying. This may be somewhat more expensive than doing it yourself, but you’re much more likely to get the results you want legally and safely.
For companies that don’t depend on flying drones as a main part of their business, this option may be less expensive than hiring the staff and buying everything you need to conduct safe and effective drone operations.
If your drone needs are more extensive, then perhaps you do need to begin commercial operations, and in that case the best solution is to contact a knowledgeable drone reseller and asking for help.
Such a reseller will be familiar with the federal rules, as well as any local regulations, and they can help you learn what else you need to do, from hiring a licensed pilot to picking the right equipment. You can find such a dealer by going to a drone maker or distributor website, finding the companies that handle their products, and then doing your due diligence to find a responsible dealer who handles commercial needs.
If this sounds like a pain in the neck, well, it can be. But your business requires that you select the right vendors in every other endeavor and that you perform due diligence. There’s no reason to expect drone operations would be any different.