Aerial photos, surveys most popular business uses for drones, industry finds

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Real-estate businesses won nearly a third of the first 500 commercial drone permits granted by theFederal Aviation Administration, an industry study obtained Thursday by USA TODAY found.

The most popular use — showcasing properties with video taken from the air — accounted for 153 of the early permits granted by the FAA beginning in September, according to the study by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, a trade group.

Other popular functions included aerial surveys, with 128 permits, general aerial photography, with 125 permits, agriculture, with 106 permits, and aerial inspection, with 86 permits, the analysis found. The uses total more than 500 because the applicants describe various purposes for how they’ll be flying the drones.

Geographically, businesses using drones are popular in every region of the country, with 70 in California, 46 in Texas, 40 in Florida, 18 in Illinois and 17 in Arizona.

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“To me, the diversity of industries that are coming forward in this initial phase and saying we’d like to fly using (drones) is the most significant element,” said Brian Wynne, the association’s CEO. “We think there’s a ready-made market out there.”

The appetite for commercial drones is huge. The FAA has granted the special permits while it develops comprehensive rules to govern how drones should share the sky with passenger planes. The FAA granted 944 commercial drone permits as of July 28, with thousands more applications pending.

The FAA is analyzing more than 4,500 comments to a proposal made public Feb.15 that governs small drones weighing up to 55 pounds. Generally, the proposal would allow daytime flights within sight of the remote pilot up to 500 feet in the air, but not over people who aren’t associated with the flight. Safety concerns remain. Two of the most serious deal with how to prevent collisions between aircraft and how to avoid hurting people on the ground if the pilot loses contact with a drone.

Wynne says the country needs looser rules governing the use of drones, such as allowing drones to fly at night, to fly beyond the vision of the remote pilot, and to fly over congested urban areas, to accommodate what the industry describes as “low-risk” business uses. Farmers who need to check the growth of remote crops or utility inspectors who must scrutinize miles of wires need permission to fly drones beyond what the pilot can see, Wynne said. A bridge inspector would lose sight of a drone, but could still fly more safely than strapping into a harness to dangle below a bridge, he said.

“What we’ve been saying to the FAA is, ‘Let’s finalize these rules as quickly as we can for low-risk operations,'” Wynne said.

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx told reporters July 24 that the FAA hopes to finalize its comprehensive proposal by the end of September, “or hopefully soon thereafter,” and pass it along to the White House Office of Management and Budget for further review.

“We recognize that the safe integration of what the FAA calls unmanned aircraft has to be done, and it has to be done as quickly as possible,” Foxx said at a breakfast organized by The Christian Science Monitor.

Capt. Tim Canoll, president of the Air Line Pilots Association, told reporters at a safety forum July 22 that each drone should carry equipment signaling its position to other aircraft to avoid collisions. Canoll also suggested a national registry should be created for even hobbyists to trace drones back to their owners should they go astray or cause damage.

“When — God forbid — we do pick the carcass of a drone out of one of the engines of a commercial airliner, we can find the serial number and trace it back to the original owner,” Canoll said. “I know it’s not foolproof.”

Industry and government regulators met Wednesday at a drone convention hosted by NASA’s Ames Research Center and the association’s Silicon Valley chapter. Experts discussed options for drones, including a suggestion from Amazon Prime Air, a proposed delivery service, to divide the airspace up to 500 feet high into zones for different types of drone traffic.

“It’s a discussion,” Wynne said. “I think it will be a galvanizing force for others to step forward.”

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