On Tuesday the FAA approved the first commercial drone flight over U.S soil. The UAS community had mixed reactions to the news, none of which could be characterized as enthusiastic.
Here’s the bad news:
- The company that was given permission to fly was none other than America’s sweetheart, British Petroleum.
- The drone in question, the AeroVironment PUMA is an army surplus drone (meaning it is far beyond the price point and accessibility of any off the shelf drone).
- The area the FAA has granted permission to fly in –Prudhoe Bay, Alaska- is quite literally the most remote location in the United States.
- With this announcement, the FAA fulfills a mandate to authorize commercial drone flights in Alaska imposed by Congress… two years ago.
- AeroVironment was already conducting commercial flights in the area so FAA approval means very little in practice.
- If you wanted to start a drone based business tomorrow and flew a drone without FAA permission, you would probably get a cease and desist fairly quickly.
However, as the UAS community rolls their eyes and chalks this announcement up as another tip-toe around the actual problem, lets take a moment to recognize that there is actual progress in the subtext of this announcement:
“It specifically says you can make money doing it [flying drones],” said Steven Hogan, a lawyer at Ausley McMullen who is part of the burgeoning business of drone law. “I can’t tell you what the time frame is for getting approval but…its better than six months ago when they said you can’t make money without a COA [certificate of authorization].”
“The show has started.”
The truth is, a small number of people have been piloting drones commercially all over the country without FAA approval for some time (and for good reason).
But this fact, along with the FAA approval, is part of the natural cadence of these types of processes.
The opening of the skies is not going to be a floodgate. Michael Huerta (Administrator of the FAA) is not going to hold a press conference and say “Here are the rules we came up with, you can fly now!”
Opening the skies to drones will be a trickle rather than a flood. Five years from now when we look back at this process, Tuesday’s approval of BP to use the PUMA for ‘commercial’ purposes will be mentioned as an important step.
Naturally, the first organizations to obtain special permission to fly commercially are going to be those with the deepest pockets (big oil being first, Hollywood most likely being the second). Its the same reason you often see celebrities with cutting edge gadgets before they are widely available: those with cash and connections always get the first slice of the pie.
It will take time and it will no doubt be frustrating, but at least they have started cutting.
Alan is serial entrepreneur, active angel investor, and a drone enthusiast. He co-founded DRONELIFE.com to address the emerging commercial market for drones and drone technology. Prior to DRONELIFE.com, Alan co-founded Where.com, ThinkingScreen Media, and Nurse.com. Recently, Alan has co-founded Crowditz.com, a leader in Equity Crowdfunding Data, Analytics, and Insights. Alan can be reached at alan(at)dronelife.com