Progress Towards Flying UAVs Commercially?

October 21, 2015  - By

If we take a quick look at what’s been happening with rules for regular commercial UAV operations, some might say progress has been mixed. If you live in Finland, then the news is quite good, while back here in the U.S., there have also been steps toward regulation for UAVs.

Just this week, the Department of Transportation moved to require that UAVs be registered. The DOT has created a task force to develop recommendations, with representatives from the UAS and manned aviation industries, the federal government and other stakeholders.

Finland just published what are being called “the most liberal aviation regulations in the world” for the operation of unmanned aircraft. Trafi — the Finish Transport Safety Agency — last week issued a Regulation for the “Use Of Remotely Piloted Aircraft and Model Aircraft” that puts an onus on operators to observe quite broad safety rules. Provided an operator provides details of the UAV and what you intend to do, and then observe some common-sense rules of operation, you are free to go fly.

In particular, if you keep a small UAV (less than 15 pounds) at a safe “escape” altitude, you are allowed under certain conditions to operate over populated areas and open area crowds, and to use either Visual Line of Sight (VLOS) or Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) — things that are really hot-potato issues here and are not currently generally allowed in the U.S. The FAA has permitted some exceptions for trial news gathering, but otherwise flights over people and densely populated areas are strictly verboten.

Finland’s Robonic UAV launchers.

Finland’s Robonic UAV launchers.


UAV image acquisition in Finland.

The objective for Trafi is to pave the way for full-scale benefits to be gained from this new segment of aviation, and to create business and developmental opportunities — particularly for testing and experiments that may further develop business activities. A far cry from how UAV life has been evolving here in North America…

Meanwhile, the FAA missed its congressionally mandated Aug. 30 deadline to integrate UAVs into the U.S. National Airspace System (NAS). This wasn’t altogether unexpected, and the FAA has been trying to otherwise enable the commercial use of UAVs by issuing a whole bunch of waivers to applicants who are ready to accept interim FAA operational rules. However, last week the FAA did fill in one of the missing pieces for commercial operators by setting up a registration program for drones, and even included a requirement to also register all recreational “model aircraft.”

Back in early September, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) issued a report that summarized how the first 1,000 FAA waivers are going. The FAA approved the first set of commercial operators on Sept. 25, 2014 — six film and television production companies. In the first year of accepting exemption requests, the FAA approved almost 500 out of about 1,500 petitions. As of Sept. 1, the FAA has gone on to approve 1,407 out of over 2,650 petitions, with approval of about 50 new operations a week. However, AUVSI says that the number of applicants continues to significantly outpace approvals – a dig by AUVSI at the FAA to move forward much more quickly to issue formal regulations for small UAV (sUAV) operations.

The analysis goes on to state the applications involved (with numbers):

  • Aerial Survey (512)
  • Real estate (350)
  • General aerial surveying (301)
  • Agriculture (164)
  • Construction (134)
  • Film and television (91)
  • Utility inspection (78)
  • Environmental uses (61)
  • Search and rescue (52)
  • Emergency management (38)
  • Insurance (25)

A wide range of commercial applications — even though the numbers seem to be a little confusing at first when reviewing only the first 1,000 approved applications.

California and Florida have the most approved applications, while 90 percent are with rotorcraft, as opposed to 10 percent using fixed-wing vehicles — most are battery powered with electric motors driving lift props. Of the UAV/UAS used, Aeryon Labs sold almost $2.5 million, DJI Innovations Inc. over $2 million, and SenseFly over a million, while 12 other manufacturers’ sales were also significant. Finally, vehicles weigh between less than 1 pound to over 200 pounds, carry payloads of less than one pound and up to 36 pounds, and fly at between 22 mph up to 82 mph for between 10 minutes and 210 minutes.

So is it better to be in Finland looking for perhaps less-frequent UAV commercial business opportunities with what looks like less restrictive regulations, or try to capture business in the U.S .with a complex approval/waiver FAA safety judgement process? My guess would be for a valuable commercial opportunity it would probably be still better to stay with the program, work through the FAA delays, and wait for something to break in the logjam of sUAS regulation approval and waiver applications. This week’s FAA announcement of a vehicle registration program proves that things are in fact moving along, albeit without a grate deal of apparent haste.

Tony Murfin
GNSS Aerospace

This is posted in Opinions, UAV/UGV

About the Author: Tony Murfin

Tony Murfin is managing consultant for GNSS Aerospace LLC, Florida. Murfin provides business development consulting services to companies involved in GNSS products and markets, and writes for GPS World as the OEM Professional contributing editor. Previously, Murfin worked for NovAtel Inc. in Calgary, Canada, as vice president of Business Development; for CMC Electronics in Montreal, Canada, as business development manager, product manager, software manger and software engineer; for CAE in Montreal as simulation software engineer; and for BAe in Warton, UK, as senior avionics engineer. Murfin has a B.Sc. from the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology in the UK, and is a UK Chartered Engineer (CEng MIET).