This week the Federal Aviation Administration make a few key updates to their commercial drone regulations: companies no longer have to hire a pilot to fly their drones (though drone controllers have to be 16 and pass a test), drones can transport cargo weighing less than 55 pounds, and drones can go up to 100 mph and ascend to 400 feet.
For utilities and engineering firms who use drones for inspections, and monitoring storm damage, this is a good sign: stripping back some of the onerous regulations will allow them to use drones more often and efficiently. But drone regulation and tech still has a ways to go before drones are ubiquitous in industry said Dara Randerson, senior project engineer at ComEd, and Peter Ferretti, GIS coordinator at civil engineering firm Braxton & Woodman at the Techweek panel “Drones: Enough Talk, Let’s Fly.”
Ferretti said the updated regulations “will allow us to do this work in areas that were going to be a challenge.”
Braxton & Woodman uses drones to do inspections of bridges and facilities, and aerial mapping. The new regulations will open up drone operations to more people in their company and allow them to expand into more urban areas. They’ve also been approached by the community to see if their drones could be used for precision agriculture, and search and rescue operations.
ComEd on the other hand uses drones to inspect power lines and survey damage after a storm. Randerson said that drones have made their operations easier, especially in tough-to-reach areas, such as wetlands and the tops of power lines. It also increases worker safety: a drone can take a photo and zoom into problem areas, “as opposed to getting a human up there to take pictures,” she said.
Though they see the future of drones in their work as “exciting,” both pointed out that there’s a ways to go before drones are a staple in utilities and civil engineering. Since there isn’t robust avoidance or communication technology built into drones, operators still have to remain within the line of vision of the drone to prevent a crash. Randerson added that the endurance, power, and carry capacity needs to be improved before they could be deployed on larger scale projects.
Of course, this is just one part of the conversation: the panel did not go into the opportunities or obstacles for commercial drone companies working on the creative side, such as drone photography or filmmaking, another huge use case for startups and tech companies looking to use drones.
Though both companies said that safety and privacy were among their top concerns, there isn’t much information yet on how rules will be enforced as drones become more ubiquitous.