Commercial drones are taking to the Northwest skies even though the rules aren't clear.
Farmers, photographers, inspectors, realtors and land mapping companies are some of the people buying remotely-piloted airplanes and choppers.
Now the FAA has gotten the first reports of close calls between manned aircraft and small drones in Idaho, Oregon and Washington.
A ‘near miss’ in Idaho
Rod Thomas operates an aerial spraying and seeding company out of the Gooding airport in south-central Idaho. One day this summer, one of his crop duster pilots was spraying potato fields in Blaine County. That's when the crop duster had Idaho's first reported "near miss" with a small drone.
"Some gentleman was either trying to chase us or block our path,” Thomas recalled. “We haven't figured out exactly what he was doing."
The crop duster pilot pulled up to avoid a collision, but not before he got so close he could identify the make and model of the drone.
"My pilot who was involved in this encounter has one of these quad copters for his kids,” Thomas said. “He was close enough to see it was identical to the one he owns."
Thomas said the average person may think there's no problem flying remote controlled airplanes and copters close to the ground in a rural area. But Thomas is quick to point out his company uses that low-level airspace too.
"The regulatory agencies have not yet caught up to where they need to be,” he said. “We’re worried that, number one, it hasn't been thought all the way through. And number two, we do not want this settled in the courts because there is a fatality from running into an ag airplane or a Life Flight helicopter."
Thomas said his company reported its near miss to the county sheriff and the Federal Aviation Administration. A sheriff's deputy located the person responsible. Thomas declined to press charges after the drone owner showed contrition to the deputy.
Recreational vs commercial flying
How often has the FAA cracked down on drone scofflaws? A public records request to the FAA's Northwest Mountain Regional Office for warning letters or related enforcement activity against people suspected of flying drones for commercial purposes brought back this reply: "No records, documents or files pertaining to your specific request were located."
A spokesman declined to make anyone from the agency available for an interview to elaborate.
The FAA makes a distinction between recreational and commercial flying. It's okay for hobbyists to fly model aircraft within line of sight and away from manned planes. But a notice from headquarters to agency field offices this summer reasserts the national policy that "Commercial UAS operations are prohibited without FAA authorization." Such authorizations -- exemptions, really -- are few and far between.
In government documents, drones are referred to as Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) to include both the remotely piloted aircraft and its ground controller.
We know as drone prices fall and capabilities increase, more and more people are flying drones for money in the Northwest. Just google "aerial photography" in your state, for starters.
"I am being very transparent," said Joe Vaughn, the owner of Skyris Imaging, which ranks high in search results in his home state of Oregon. The Portland-based company uses drones to take aerial shots up to a pre-programmed maximum altitude of 400 feet.
In an interview, Vaughn said he informed the FAA's Portland office in 2012 and several times since about his business plans. He remembers the exact words of the staffer he spoke with the first time. "Go to town," Vaughn recalled her saying. "I appreciate you calling in.”
Who owns the sky?
This summer's FAA policy notice said the agency's preference is to "use outreach and education to encourage voluntary compliance."
What's more, a drone operator in Virginia earlier this year successfully challenged the FAA's authority to fine him. The FAA just won on appeal, but the case drags on. It involves a man named Raphael Pirker, who was fined by the FAA for allegedly flying in a "reckless manner" while filming a promotional video for the University of Virginia medical school.
This all gives some farmers, photographers and others here in the Northwest confidence they are within their rights to fly using common sense safeguards.
Dennis Healy founded a startup in Redmond, Washington, called FarmCloud. It helps farmers analyze and use aerial images of their fields and vineyards.
"Supreme Court decisions have said the air rights over one's property -- not into the national airspace -- are the domain of that property owner,” Healy said. “That's exactly where we come down. Under 500 feet, you can pretty much fly what you want to do.”
‘We're actually trying to do everything legally’
Industry analysts frequently put the ag industry at the top of the list of biggest potential users of civilian drones. It's a market entrepreneur Paul Applewhite of Seattle would like to serve, along with surveying and wildfire reconnaissance.
Applewhite has designed several lightweight, fixed-wing drones for his startup called Applewhite Aero. But he fears "the great deal of ambiguity" about domestic drone flying could stunt a promising industry.
"What's difficult is the uncertainty,” Applewhite said. “You could have the federal government show up and for every time you flew a UAV, they could slap you with a $10,000 fine. In our case, we're actually trying to do everything legally. We're struggling to get a Styrofoam airplane in the air and it took two years to do it, to get all the permits."
Next month, Applewhite plans to go to British Columbia to test fly a larger aircraft that he hopes will become his flagship product. He said Canada has proved much more accommodating.
The U.S. Congress has directed the FAA to formulate rules for how manned and unmanned aircraft can share the domestic skies. Draft regulations have been promised by the end of this year, with a final package due by next year. But at an unmanned aircraft industry conference in Oregon last month, many speakers were sure the deadlines will slip.
"Sense-and-avoid" transponders could be a big part of the solution to safely integrating drones according to Dave Bower, an air cargo pilot from Camas, Washington. He has given aerial "traffic conflict" a lot of thought.
"Companies are already making transponders that are very small,”Bower said. "That is the key to the whole thing... those kinds of systems."
Larger aircraft, such as the cargo jets Bower flies, already carry transponders that continually transmit position, altitude and velocity to air traffic control and nearby planes. Bower said for situational awareness ”the tools are already available.”