April/May 2016 Issue
Once the use of drones becomes widespread, it could
have a big impact on Arkansas agriculture and other
industries, but many experts say the Federal Aviation
Administration needs a more streamlined approach
to licensing use of the unmanned aerial devices.
Photography by Brandon Markin
Top Photo: Aerial Patrol Inc. in North Little Rock was one of the
first in Arkansas to receive authorization to legally fly drones.
Matt Otts, chief pilot, is experienced in flying UAVs.
Rules governing operation of unmanned aerial vehicles, or “drones,” have emerged very slowly — a lot more slowly than the budding industry would like.
The initial proposal issued by the Federal Aviation Administration over a year ago, allowed for the registration of UAVs weighing up to 55 pounds that could travel as fast as 100 mph at altitudes of 500 feet or lower. Operators would have to pass a test showing their knowledge of the aircraft and the regulations, as well as a federal security check. Drones could not fly over people, except the person operating the aircraft.
The industry has been anxiously awaiting the promulgation of final rules. One trade group says within three years of their integration into airspace, drones will have created 70,000 jobs with an economic impact of more than $13.6 billion. In the interim, FAA has, a few at a time, issued waivers of Section 333 of the 2012 Modernization and Reform Act to allow commercial drone operations. Some of those have been in agriculture; last year, Archer Daniels Midland’s crop insurance arm received permission to use the unmanned craft for surveillance on claims.
There will eventually be a lot more, said Chad Causey, executive director of the Arkansas Aerospace and Defense Alliance, a trade group representing companies with interests in those industries.
“The national trade association for unmanned aerial systems did an economic forecast in the last couple of years, and it projected that 80 percent of the commercial applicability of unmanned aerials is in the agriculture and agriculture-related industries,” Causey told AMP.
Because the FAA is expected to finalize the rules for smaller drones first, he said, “in my mind they are apt to do that in areas where there is less population. We will see heavy use of commercial drones in more rural and agricultural areas before we see them delivering packages in the downtowns of major metropolitan areas.”
Causey visualizes row-crop farmers in eastern Arkansas using drones to check for soil moisture and pest infestations before applying chemicals and fertilizers; when larger drones are authorized, they’ll be big enough to carry and deliver those inputs themselves.
Other Arkansas economic sectors, he believes, will also want the new technology. “There will also be a lot of use in forestry, counting plantings and checking tree crops,” he said. “Utilities will be using these to fly to utility lines to inspect.”
And, Causey said because of the in-state demand, there will be companies located in Arkansas that will manufacture not only the drones, but also the sensors and cameras that will be the UAV’s eyes in the skies.
They’re not here yet. A website, UAVGlobal, lists 441 manufacturers worldwide, 100 of them in the United States. None are in Arkansas, although Brad Fausett, CEO and co-owner of Little Rock-based ArkUAV, said they’re doing their own research and development.
“We thought with the sensors that were available, and the drones being able to provide lift for different sized payloads, that was one of the bigger technology markets that was going to develop,” Fausett told AMP. “And, we were right.”
Fausett said the company filed as a LLC last June, and received a federally guaranteed Small Business Administration loan in September. ArkUAV received FAA approval in March 2016, which was a complicated process that took longer than expected and yielded few answers during the waiting period, he said.
“We were expecting our 333 [waiver], based on the FAA guidelines and their time frame, to be Nov. 21, ,” he said.
According to the FAA website, “Due to the high volume of Section 333 petitions received, we are experiencing delays in processing petitions. We will do our best to process petitions being posted to the docket as soon as possible, and in the order they were received. We appreciate your patience as we work diligently to process your request.” An agency spokesperson did not respond to an AMP email.
Fausett will also need a pilot’s license, and said he’s in the process of applying for one. The alternative, he said, would be to hire a licensed pilot with no experience flying a remote-control aircraft. Not only is the license another $10,000 investment, Fausett said, but “that just allows me to fly; it doesn’t allow my engineers or anyone else who works for me to fly. Now, I’ve got to be the pilot in command.”
Although ArkUAV can sell small drones as toys, Fausett said what they’re doing is more about the data-gathering technology they want to employ than it is about the drones themselves. The company has partnered with the University of Arkansas at Little Rock through the Tech Launch and Donald W. Reynolds Governor’s Cup programs, and is using, for educational purposes, the first-person view and virtual reality sets that are used to fly the vehicles.
“I have two engineers that do nothing but R&D, and we’re now applying for some R&D grants through the SBA to try and help fund us,” he said.
Fausett plans to use the drones for remotely gathering data via two methods, infrared and light detection and ranging (Lidar), a surveying technology that measures distance by illuminating a target with a laser light. Using Lidar, he said, they’d make Little Rock the first city with a three-dimensional map and an airspace map as well.
“For emergency management situations, that would be ideal because then an address isn’t the bottom floor of a building that actually has a vertical address as well,” he said.
The company could also run laser lights over levees or roads to detect faults, or over a construction site to ensure water will drain off the site. Lidar could help make existing buildings “greener” by identifying cracks and leaks to be insulated or re-plastered.
“You can get exact elevation, so we can fly over a structure and tell a client, ‘Your structure is sinking on one side; the foundation is not stable,’” Fausett said. “Or, if you’re going to rebuild a structure, for example, a river crossing structure for an electrical infrastructure company, they want to know exactly what height the structure is and what height the new structure would be, so they can calculate sag lines.”
That’s already done with helicopters, he said, but that process takes weeks and costs a fortune. He would be able to do it in about an hour.
Expanding With Drones
Zane Anderson is already in the helicopter business, but the owner of Aerial Patrol Inc. in North Little Rock had envisioned regaining and expanding business with drones.
“A large percentage of our business used to be aerial photography, and ENG, electronic news gathering,” he told AMP. “There was still plenty of aerial photography being done; you see it every time you turn a TV on, or a car dealership or real estate sales. That was stuff we always used to do, and we weren’t doing that anymore.”
They discovered it was being done with multi-rotor drones, which cost anywhere from a few hundred to several thousand dollars. And, they were being used illegally.
“The FAA wasn’t enforcing it,” Anderson said. “They were kind of a paper tiger in this, and after numerous discussions with the FAA we decided well, if we can’t lick ‘em, join ‘em, and we decided to get into the drone business” legally.
It took about a year of writing manuals and petitioning the FAA.
“We had to show them why this was in the public interest that we do this, and how we could do it at least at the same level of safety as a helicopter doing the same thing,” he said. Finally, Aerial Patrol received both a 333 Exemption and a Certificate of Authorization, which is issued for use of drones to do an individual job.
According to the FAA’s website, “The Section 333 Exemption process provides operators who wish to pursue safe and legal entry into the [National Aerospace System] a competitive advantage in the [unmanned aircraft systems] marketplace, thus discouraging illegal operations and improving safety.”
It hasn’t worked out that way for Aerial Patrol.
“FAA still hasn’t enforced their own rules, and we’re competing against everybody in Arkansas or anywhere else that’s got one of these things,” Anderson said. “They are very cheap; they’re very easy to operate, and you can get very good quality of aerial photography from them. But the FAA put so many restrictions on us to do it legally, and other people don’t have any restrictions on them.”
Anderson said six months or a year ago, he thought they would still be able to compete with the illicit operators.
Now, he said, “I doubt it. I think there are just too many of them out there. The FAA is used to going to airports to enforce their regulations; [when it comes to drones], people just operate out of the back of their cars or anywhere, and they’re hard to catch…The FAA has asked for the cooperation of law enforcement; they sent out a memorandum January a year ago asking for help from local law enforcement, but they haven’t received much.”