Any day now, federal regulators will propose rules for operating small commercial drones over the U.S..
But the fledgling drone industry has not been waiting to take off. Sales of the unmanned robotic flying machines are soaring.
This month, several thousand people flocked to the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena for the commercial drone industry’s first expo.
Gauging from the energetic crowd and busy industry booths, spectators could easily forget that flying a drone to make money is illegal, and that new rules won’t be finalized for months.
The Federal Aviation Administration says that this week it plans to propose rules for commercial drones weighing less than 55 pounds. The public will then get to comment.
Near the Los Angeles expo entrance, a booth for DroneFly Inc., a Westlake Village, Calif., startup, was promoting its small helicopter-like drones.
“Drones will affect and change the world — much like automobiles, but on a much larger scale,” Taylor Chien, DroneFly’s 30-year-old co-founder and chief executive, said in a video playing on a big screen.
Video taken by the company’s camera-equipped drone was screened.
Not everyone was impressed. “It frightens me. It really does,” David Morton, a retired Federal Aviation Administration inspector and speaker at the expo, said when a person in the crowd asked about DroneFly’s video 15 minutes later. “The technology is way ahead of the regulatory environment.”
Drones have hit buildings and people, but thus far there have been no reports of serious injuries in the United States. A growing concern is the almost-daily reports by pilots who see drones flying dangerously close to their aircrafts.
Two aircraft on approach to Los Angeles International Airport in May reported seeing a “trash-can-sized” drone at 6,500 feet, according to a report filed with the FAA.
In October, a small plane flying above Burbank at 8,000 feet reported seeing a red-and-black drone, measuring three feet across, passing just off its wing in the opposite direction.
There are online videos of drones flying out of control and then disappearing. The “flyaways” can be caused by faulty programming, interference with the drones’ GPS systems or lost connections with the ground controller.
The FAA’s ban on flying commercial drones until regulations are in place has held back the industry. Yet some entrepreneurs have grown tired of waiting and are operating the drones anyway — spurred by the agency’s lack of enforcement.
Sales are increasing quickly as the drones become cheaper, more powerful and easier to fly. Prices start at under $50 on Amazon.com.
Frank Tesoro, DroneFly’s 30-year-old president, said the company that he founded with Chien in a garage sold $3 million in drones in 2013 — its first year of operation. This year, he said, the company is set to triple that.
Evidence of the industry’s booming sales comes from Parrot, a French firm that is one of the few drone makers that is a public company. The firm said last month that its third-quarter sales of the machines were 130 percent over the comparable quarter last year.
The public often connects drones to their use by the military. Organizers of the expo, however, said they wanted to promote the technology’s many promising commercial uses.
Farmers want to use drones to monitor crops and improve yields. Industrial companies see using them to inspect smokestacks, pipelines and other hard-to-reach property. Journalists envision them as reporting tools.
Only a few companies have received exemptions to fly drones commercially. However, anyone can fly a drone for fun or personal use as long as national safety guidelines are followed.
The FAA began a safety campaign last week, reminding amateur operators of the rules. The guidelines require operators to keep drones below 400 feet, always within sight and at least five miles from airports.
Entrepreneurs have been waiting for years for the FAA’s rules for commercial drones. Many expo attendees said they fear the proposed rules will be so onerous that many people will be kept out of the business.
Among their concerns is that the agency will require drone operators to get licenses similar to what is required of commercial pilots — a certificate that can take many months and cost tens of thousands of dollars.
“Licenses hold you accountable for doing the right thing with the technology,” Morton said.
“We want to follow the rules,” said A.J. Jolivette, Chief Executive of Terosaur, a drone firm in Huntington Beach, Calif. But if the rules are too strict, he said, it will cause people to “go around the regulations.”
Thus far, the FAA has filed notices of enforcement action against just five people who were flying drones commercially.
Raphael Pirker was fined $10,000 after he used a drone to make a promotional video of the University of Virginia. The FAA contended that he had operated the unmanned glider without a license and recklessly, nearly missing a pedestrian and buildings.
Pirker challenged the fine, but last month the National Transportation Safety Board ruled that the FAA had the power to punish drone operators for reckless behavior. An administrative law judge must now determine whether Pirker’s flight was reckless.
The chief executives of four drone companies, including Chien, spoke of trying to succeed despite the ban on flying commercial drones.
“I can teach anyone to fly in five minutes,” Chien said. “Who hasn’t had the dream to fly? … It’s a huge movement, and it’s here to stay.”