Don’t prematurely limit the potential of aerial drones

A drone flies over a ravine as the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office demonstrates a search-and-rescue operation on Aug. 14. Law enforcement is joining commercial businesses in using drones.
A drone flies over a ravine as the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office demonstrates a search-and-rescue operation on Aug. 14. Law enforcement is joining commercial businesses in using drones. The Associated Press

From Silicon Valley to Hollywood, unmanned aircraft are transforming how California industries operate and are creating several new ones as well.

But as more and more businesses receive waivers from the Federal Aviation Administration to fly drones commercially, legislators are considering Senate Bill 142, which would restrict drones from flying below 350 feet over private property.

While the industry supports the safe, nonintrusive use of drone technology, passage of SB 142 would create inconsistencies with federal law. The Supreme Court ruled that property rights do not extend infinitely into the sky. In other words, only the FAA can regulate airspace; states and municipalities can’t.

Legislation like SB 142 isn’t unique to California. Many states have been considering proposals that would prematurely and unnecessarily limit the tremendous societal and economic benefits that drone technology will bring. But until the FAA finalizes its long awaited rules on small unmanned aircraft systems, there is much uncertainty about where operators should and shouldn’t fly and for what purpose. For the safety of our skies, we need Washington to make finalizing these rules a top priority.

There is strong evidence that a burgeoning market is waiting to be unleashed once regulations are established. Since the FAA announced in May 2014 that it would grant exemptions for certain low-risk commercial drones, more than 1,100 businesses, including dozens in California, have received permission.

The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International recently examined the first 500 approved petitions and found that California led the way with 70. Unmanned aircraft are being used in many of the state’s top industries, including film and television, real estate and agriculture.

For example, Carlsbad-based Aerial Mob was one of the first to receive a commercial exemption from the FAA. An innovator in cinematography and technology, Aerial Mob is also considered a pioneer in safety standards. The company performed the first ever FAA-approved film production project with a major studio on the set of the CBS show “The Mentalist.” The company has since filmed Super Bowl promos for NBC, a promo for a new show on Amazon Prime and even helped Apple film a commercial.

Drones are also very popular in California’s resurgent real estate industry. Real estate agents see an opportunity to capture unique aerial perspectives for their listings. The FAA has issued 15 exemptions to real estate companies in the state and more than 200 nationwide, according to the National Association of Realtors.

The large number of commercial exemptions granted in California shows that its commercial drone market is waiting to be unleashed. However, the current system of case-by-case approvals isn’t a long-term solution. Once the FAA finalizes its rules, any drone operator who follows the rules can fly, opening the door to even more commercial use in California.

A study by our association estimated that in the first decade following drone integration into the national airspace system, California’s economy would gain more than 18,100 jobs and more than $14 billion in economic impact. Under the right regulatory environment, there’s no question these numbers could go even higher.

Drone technology is developing rapidly and the next innovative use may be just around the corner. To continue reaping the economic benefits, we need to do all we can to support the growth and development of this industry rather than restrict it. Otherwise, California risks losing its innovation edge, plus billions of dollars of economic impact.

Brian Wynne is president and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.