Drones Find Fans Among Farmers, Filmmakers

 

FAA Still Debating Rules but Drones are Spraying 40% of Japan’s Rice Fields

 

After Greek land surveyor George Papastamos bought his first drones a year ago, he let go most of his workers. Now, instead of a team of 12, he shows up to work sites with just a drone and an assistant.

‘I could see this was the future,’ said Mr. Papastamos, a second-generation surveyor from Athens. The drones have improved his maps and lowered his costs, enabling him to win more business. ‘It is much, much more profitable,’ he said.

As U.S. regulators and courts grapple with when and how to allow the use of drones for commercial purposes, flying robots already are starting to change the way companies do business in countries from Australia to Japan to the U.K. They are showing the potential to provide cheaper and more effective alternatives to manned aircraft—and human workers—in industries like mining, construction and filmmaking.

The U.S. is ‘the world leader in producing drones,’ but ‘the reality is the rest of the world has moved further ahead of us in terms of commercial applications,’ said drone researcher Missy Cummings, director of the Humans and Autonomy Lab at Duke University.

insituThe Insitu ScanEagle drone, which costs about $100,000, can fly up to 19,500 feet and for about 24 hours.AFP/Getty Images

The biggest buzz over commercial drones in the U.S. has come fromAmazon.comInc.’s proposal to use them for package delivery. But that idea will take years to realize. The legality of using drones commercially in the U.S. likely will remain murky until explicit rules are issued later this decade. The Federal Aviation Administration has effectively banned commercial drones in the continental U.S., although this past week a court cast doubt on the agency’s authority to do so.

Unlike Amazon’s proposal, the uses for drones that have shown the greatest immediate promise overseas are generally far from consumers, on worksites or in relatively remote areas that have typically required manned aircraft.

Mining companies use drones’ high-definition cameras to create 3-D maps of mines that software uses to calculate how much material has been removed, enabling companies to adjust production estimates. ‘It’s faster, simpler and more efficient’ than human surveyors or manned aircraft, said Thomas Lerch, who uses drones to measure gravel pits, quarries and landfills in Switzerland.

EDF Energy, a unit of Électricité de France SA, said that after it used a drone made byTrimble NavigationLtd. to survey the site of a planned nuclear power plant in southwest England, other uses became clear. The drone mapped debris for removal, pinpointed piles of asbestos for excavation and calculated where water was pooling to assist flood management. ‘There is potential for any construction project,’ said Barnaby Wiegand, EDF Energy’s project development director.

Mr. Papastamos, the Greek surveyor, used to spend up to €25,000 ($34,345) to survey 15 square kilometers, a job that could take one to three weeks depending on the terrain. With a drone he can finish that job in three to four days for less than €5,000. He charges less, so clients are willing to pay for several surveys to monitor construction progress, rather than just one before work begins. ‘It’s a totally different business,’ Mr. Papastamos said.

Some drone uses are more glamorous. The film industry has used them to film chase scenes and aerial shots in James Bond and Harry Potter movies, among others. Drones are ‘extremely common on sets overseas,’ said Motion Picture Association of America spokeswoman Kate Bedingfield, who said they are safer and cheaper than manned helicopters and enable more innovative shots.

U.S. experts predict major potential for drones in agriculture. In Japan,YamahaCorp. has been selling drones to farmers for 20 years. It estimates about 2,400 of its unmanned helicopters are spraying pesticides and fertilizers on 40% of the rice fields in Japan. Another 100 drones are helping to farm wheat, soybeans and pine trees in South Korea and remove weeds in Australia, the company said. Yamaha is seeking FAA approval to begin commercial use in the U.S.

Chris Anderson, chief executive of drone maker 3D Robotics in San Diego, said drones will be most useful for farmers in gathering crop data, including soil quality, water usage and pest outbreaks. But developing large-scale, commercially viable uses will take time, said Mr. Anderson, a former editor in chief of Wired magazine.

yamahaThe Yamaha RMAX unmanned drone is used to spray pesticides and fertilizers on crops.ZUMAPRESS.com

‘The potential is massive but the time scale is longer than initially thought,’ he said.

The FAA permits drones—the smallest of which are effectively souped-up versions of the traditional remote-control airplane—for personal use, as long as they’re flown below 400 feet, within eyesight of the controller and away from airports and populated areas. Government agencies can also use drones in the U.S.

For commercial use, the FAA says it needs to be methodical because the U.S. ‘has the busiest, most complex airspace in the world,’ according to the agency’s website. ‘Developing all the rules and standards we need is a very complex task, and we want to make sure we get it right the first time.’

Still, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta told Congress in January that the current drone-certification process ‘is not sustainable long term.’ The FAA isn’t likely to have full-scale rules in place until after 2015, but it plans to propose rules this year for drones weighing less than 55 pounds.

 

The FAA so far has certified two commercial drones, both for use in the Arctic. Last fall,ConocoPhillipsCOP+0.69%launched the first of these, made byBoeingCo.BA-0.24%subsidiary Insitu Inc., from a vessel in the Chukchi Sea near Alaska to collect data on ice pack and whale migration.

Many other countries have simpler rules for commercial drones. Australia, for example, requires commercial-drone operators to prove they can fly the devices and that their aircraft meet basic standards set by the United Nations’ aviation body. Australia’s number of approved operators has risen to more than 70 from 30 a year ago, and the commercial-drone industry hasn’t had a major accident in roughly 10 years of operation, the country’s civil-aviation authority said.

The FAA has enforced its commercial-drone rules when it hears about possible violations. A Minnesota beer company dropped its plan to use drones to deliver beer to ice fishermen after the plan made headlines and the FAA told the company to think twice.

In 2012, the agency fined a man $10,000 for filming the University of Virginia campus with a drone. On Thursday, an administrative law judge struck down the fine, ruling the FAA’s restriction on commercial use is a policy, not an enforceable law. The FAA said it would appeal the ruling.

The ruling is expected to provide a boost to U.S. drone entrepreneurs who have already been testing the FAA. Eric Maloney, head of production for Los Angeles-based Drone Dudes, said the company has been using drones to film movies and commercials in the U.S. for two years without a problem. ‘It’s illegal to fly any [remote-control] vehicle in a dangerous manner; it’s illegal to fly near an airport,’ he said. ‘We don’t do that.’

 


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