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The drone economy is already here

CHAVA: The Federal Aviation Administration – or F-A-A – has been loosening restrictions for commercial use of drones. Last week it gave retail giant Amazon permission to test drones to deliver packages. The agency is also considering new rules that would let other companies use drones as well.

CAMILLE: Some drone entrepreneurs and businesses say the change can’t come soon enough, but other say there are safety and privacy concerns.

My co-host, Chava Gourarie reports.


On a cold and windy Sunday, in a park in Rockand county, drone enthusiasts gathered for International Drone Day. Most of the guys here – and they’re almost all guys – aren’t flying their drones because of the wind, but they have plenty to talk about.

DRONE ENTHUSIAST 1: Is it like the OSD module, On Screen Display, that provides celemetry data, and whether the camera’s running? DRONE ENTHUSIAST 2: Yeah it tells you everything about the goggles you need to know.

They’re discussing a new drone that weighs about 2 lbs, is less than a foot long, and comes with two cameras to capture 3D imaging. The operator wears goggles while flying the drone and sees what the cameras see. Chris Nelson is impressed.

NELSON: I’m looking to do some aerial photography, aerial video, so I’m trying to learn more about drones to do that.

Drones are a hobby for Nelson and the others, but they’re serious business for Edward Kostakis. He runs a production company that uses drones to shoot video. Some of their drones can carry up to One of their drones can carry up to 35 pounds and on a shoot, might be fitted with a $20,000 camera. But legally, the company operates in a gray area.

The FAA released proposed rules last month that will begin allowing commercial use of drones, under certain conditions. The proposed rules are the first step, but they won’t go into effect until 2017. And until then, Kostakis is losing business.

KOSTAKIS: If a director says to me, hey I want to shoot in New York, and we say, we can do that but pretty much it’s a gray area whether or not we can shoot or not, and they 100% back off and are like nope, I don’t want to do it anymore.

His company has applied to the FAA for an exemption. It’s one of about 650 requests the agency’s gotten, but have only granted about 70, and the process can take about six months.

If the FAA loosened restrictions, the drone economy would explode according to a recent industry report. Drones could be worth billions within a few years. That’s up from $180 million it’s generating now, according to industry analyst Colin Snow. It would also mean a lot of jobs.

SNOW: I did a study that looked at what people’s intent were if favorable rules came into play. I think at least 60% said they would hire at least two or three full-time employees.

A booming drone business could be deadly, according to skeptics. One of the largest commercial pilot’s unions argue the FAA’s proposed rules don’t do enough to protect the safety of airliners and passengers.

That’s also a concern of the National Agricultural Aviation Association. Executive director Andrew Moore says pilots who fly the planes that spray crops and seed farms fly low to the ground, where they’d be more likely to run into drones.

MOORE: We’ve actually had mallards and turkey vultures – who weigh between one-and-a-half and three-and-a-half pounds – come through the windshield of an agricultural aircraft and do damage

And the FAA is planning to approve drones that that weigh ten times that. And smaller drones can be even more dangerous, because they are difficult to see.

Moore’s groups and airline advocates want the FAA to require drone operators to be trained and certified. But drone analyst Colin Snow says, from the industry’s point of view, that misses the point, and advantage, of this new technology.

SNOW: People are scratching their heads, you mean I have to learn how to land a Cessna to operate my drone commercially? I can operate it now as a hobbyist. Makes no sense.

While the FAA is deciding, Edward Kostakis is using drones to shoot video where he can. Like the recent job he took at Radio City Music Hall. It was one of his favorite.

KOSTAKIS: Oh yeah, and the FAA can’t say anything because we’re indoors!

He thinks it’s inevitable that he’ll be able to do the same thing outdoors, legally.

KOSTAKIS: I fully expect that in the next six, seven years, we’re going to be looking out this window here and there’s going to be drones just flying by. Whoosh woosh woosh, and that’s the end of that.

There are 30 days left for the public to comment on the FAA’s proposed rules before they go into review.

Chava Gourarie, Columbia Radio News

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