While the idea of miniature unmanned aircraft being used by businesses has been around for a while, drones still have that unattainable futuristic quality about them. It almost feels as much of a stretch to suggest having a drone as it is to suggest you go all Star Trek with your business and start beaming up employees from the parking lot.
We aren't anywhere close to teleporting employees, of course, but owning a business drone does seems closer than ever, especially since the FAA announced its new rules.
If you're interested in one day using a drone for your business, here's what you should know.
How to Buy and Apply for a Drone
You can buy a drone today if you want, but only for entertainment purposes. If you have big plans for your small business using drones, you'll likely have to wait until the final FAA rules are released in 2016 or 2017. But perhaps not. If you're patient and willing to go through the approval process, you might be able to get approved before then by applying for what's known as a Section 333 Exemption or a Special Airworthiness Certificate. You can learn more about the commercial drone process at the FAA website.
"The Federal Aviation Administration doesn't allow for widespread use of drones for commercial purposes by businesses," says Gretchen West, vice president of business development and regulatory affairs for DroneDeploy, a company that offers software that helps businesses interested in operating drones. "However, they have recently created a process where some individuals and businesses can apply for approvals to fly. To date, less than 30 approvals have been granted. Among those approvals are use in agriculture, real estate and cinematography."
If you want or plan to wait until the FAA laws are in place, if all goes as planned, you or your employees would have to pass a written proficiency test, register a drone and pay around $200 in fees. On the plus side, you wouldn't have to take a flying test or get a pilot's license.
But there are still a lot of questions and concerns that business owners interested in commercial drones have or should have, according to West. Among them, she says, "The FAA will require all operations to be conducted during daylight hours which is also restrictive when drones can be equipped with lights and can be seen in dark hours. The requirement not to operate drones over people not directly in the operation is also restrictive and needs to be addressed."
Yet overall, West claims that the business community was pleasantly surprised the FAA's recently announced proposed rules weren't more restrictive. "Overall, it was a positive sign for the industry and a step in the right direction," she says.
As far as the cost goes, it's hard to say exactly how much you might spend.
"There are many different sizes and shapes of drones, from fixed-wing to multi-rotor and of all sizes, so providing an average cost is a bit misleading, especially when these drones are equipped with different kinds of cameras and sensors," West says. "For some smaller off-the-shelf drones that can be used for both commercial or consumer purposes, costs range from $500 to $5,000. Some of the more professional equipment that is available for more specific use cases from smaller manufacturers could cost between $20,000 to $50,000. And there are drones that cost outside those ranges."
Industries Most Likely to Use Drones
Oil and gas for inspections; power, line and utility companies for inspection; mining companies for surveying and mapping are some of the likely early adapters, West predicts.
"There are literally hundreds of applications where drones can be used commercially to collect imagery and provide actionable data to the end user," she says.
Vince Harris agrees. A professor of electrical and computer engineering at Northeastern University in Boston and a former branch head of the Materials Physics Branch at the Naval Resource Laboratory, Harris claims that while there isn't much going on in the commercial space right now, there's a lot of potential.
"There are a number of applications that I'm excited about," Harris says. "I spoke to a surgeon not long ago, who said that they're considering using drones to deliver organs that are required to be delivered rapidly, possibly from the scene of an accident to a hospital, or from one hospital to another."
Moreover, insurance companies have considered utilizing drones to take photos of devastation in areas that humans can't safely reach, and to help with processing claims faster.
Where to Buy Drones
West claims that many drone manufacturers sell products directly or through resellers. Some of the bigger names include Germany-based Spectair Group, which has three brands: Spectair Services, Flairics and Height-Tech.
There's also Dajiang Innovation Technology, based in Shenzen, China, and Matternet, headquartered in Silicon Valley. GoPro, Inc., a manufacturer of wearable cameras, is in the midst of launching a line of consumer drones, which are expected to cost between $500 and $1,000.
What to Do in the Meantime
If you aren't interested in applying with the FAA yet but believe your business might use drones one day, there are things you can do to prepare and educate yourself in the meantime. If you're really serious about your drone education, there are events to attend, such as the Drone World Expo. You could also buy a drone for recreational use and start learning the rules of the sky.
"We'd encourage any user, regardless of where purchased, to learn the rules of safe and responsible flying," West says, suggesting interested consumers learn about general responsibility at KnowBeforeYouFly.org.
You or your employees may also be able to learn how to fly a drone from the drone manufacturer. Spectair Academy, for instance, offers individual flight training to its customers.
"Customers will either receive training on their own equipment or on the micro-copter Spectair supplies," says Fabian Kreye, a spokesperson for Spectair. He adds that business owners can use their own equipment when receiving training or use Spectair's.
"They will learn safe takeoff and landing procedures, and manual operation of the copter and its camera equipment," Kreye says.
In any case, getting some drone training isn't a bad idea, given how some drone operators have inadvertently found themselves in the news. As Harris observes, "You have to make sure your drone doesn't bump into something or drift onto the White House lawn."
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