Drone business about to take off, panel says

The commercial drone business is still in its infancy in the United States, but that could change rapidly, according to a panel experts.

Speaking at a Wisconsin Technology Council luncheon, the panel – all former military pilots – said the future use of drones is only limited by human creativity. That potential, however, could be curtailed by restrictions placed on this burgeoning enterprise by lawmakers.

Peter Menet, a former helicopter pilot now head of Milwaukee-based Menet Aero, described drones as “much more than toys.” He said their use by a broad range of businesses has the potential to grow to an $82 billion industry in this country alone over the next decade.

Menet testified before the Wisconsin Legislature last session on bills that he said could have imposed restrictions on the use of drones, including one that had a “penalty enhancer” for crimes aided by a drone, which are formally called unmanned aircraft systems, or UAS.

He said the Badger State has a “strong aviation presence” that could develop into a major drone industry for Wisconsin. But he warned it could be crippled by over-restrictive rules and legislation.

“There is a lot of interest in drones now, but that interest is tempered by a lack of knowledge,” he said. “There are a lot of decision makers at the state level might be eager to regulate without really understanding… the legitimate uses of drones.”

He acknowledged that there have been some irresponsible operation of drones – including near airports. However, he said most hobbyists and businesses are “doing everything they can to be good players in the UAS industry, trying to drive it forward to create jobs and make Wisconsin a drone technology leader.”

He said drones are already heavily regulated by the FAA, so Wisconsin officials should “avoid enacting broad-reaching, restrictive legislation that could destroy this great opportunity for our state.”

Chris Johnson, head of the UW-Madison flight laboratory, serves on a state UAS board that is trying to come up with solutions to safety and privacy concerns as the use of drones expands in urban areas.

“Drones can practically fly themselves,” he said, noting that they are already widely employed in agriculture, forestry and by pipeline companies. He also noted that a UW professor is working on a UAS application to deploy “an army of drones” that could detect and possiblly destroy mines and roadside bombs.

He described the non-urban drone market as crowded, but said the “floodgates are about to open” for other uses, especially if common-sense rules are created for the industry.

Brad Livingston, who is in charge of the Dane County Airport, said his biggest safety concern is keeping hobbyist drone operators from flying in the terminal’s airspace.

He said police are called to chase rogue drone operators and said a UAS had caused at least one near miss.

“So we are very concerned about separation” of drones and airplanes, he said, noting that some municipalities are considering rules that would prohibit drones from operating within five miles of airports.

Mark Foisy, a UAS specialist with the Federal Aviation Administration in Chicago, said the use of drones “is limited only by our creativity.” He acknowledged that his agency has taken a conservative approach to the UAS industry because the FAA’s primary responsibility is the “safe and efficient airspace management.”

He said different rules for various kinds of drone operators has created confusion. He predicted that UAS operators may be treated like general aviation pilots and he forecast that regulation of the industry will be “morphing for years to come… but will ultimately rely on voluntary compliance.”

Dale Geisler, who led the Marine Corps’ first drone squadron and now heads a UAS-related company called Rapid Imaging Software, said drones with high-tech cameras can map construction and other sites “down to the centimeter and create 3D models. Really, the sky is the limit.”

He said public safety agencies such as police and fire departments, as well as utilities and energy companies could all use drones to make their work simpler and safer.

Tom Gemmel, a former Air Force fighter pilot who is now leads the UAS team for the Husch Blackwell law firm in Chicago, said “if you can think about a use for drones, it will happen.”

He called the FAA’s rule-making process for drones slow, but said that is the “proper way to go” for such a young industry.

However, he predicted there will soon be a “huge parting of the skies” that will allow the UAS industry to grow rapidly.

— By Brian E. Clark,
For WisBusiness.com