Regional Public Journalism
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Northwest Drone Businesses Get FAA Clearance For Takeoff

Vicki Burton
Hundreds of private drone operators across the U.S. have been granted permission by the FAA to fly unmanned aircraft, like this quadcopter.

The Federal Aviation Administration has recently granted clearance for takeoff to big batches of commercial drone operators.

More than a dozen Northwest companies are among the beneficiaries of a quickened approval process.

The federal government continues to ban drone operations for business purposes while it develops rules to safely integrate unmanned aircraft into the national airspace. But the FAA can grant exemptions from the ban on a case-by-case basis.

Under pressure from Congress and American business, the agency has issued hundreds of such exemptions lately. In the Northwest, a mixture of startups and established firms won approval to fly small, remote-controlled quad-copters. The business plans include aerial photography for real estate listings, power line and pipeline inspections and crop surveys.

Joseph Hovelman has been champing at the bit to do all that and more at Ashland, Oregon-based Mountain High Aviation.

"It took a lot of patience for us to sit back and prepare and build the infrastructure of our company while other people were going out and just flying,” he said. “Some people would dispute whether [that flying] was illegal. We didn't want to question the rules."

In eastern Idaho, the FAA is allowing a search and rescue nonprofit to deploy camera-equipped drones. David Forker of Snake River Search said the new technology can reduce the chances that human searchers will hurt themselves in hazardous or inaccessible terrain.

"Drones will give us the capability to operate over some of those areas without risking people,” Forker said. “We can look in a lake or a river using the drone and hopefully locate a drowning victim so that divers don't have to be put at risk."

Forker said his DJI Phantom 2 can be programmed to fly a standard search grid at low altitudes and stream live video to a ground station.

"Looking at it live is not easy," Forker said though. "A lot of what we're planning on doing is using it to record data which we would then bring down... and create a map mosaic which would allow us to do detailed analysis of the data and those visual images."

Forker's nonprofit plans to offer its services to emergency response agencies in the Upper Snake River Basin at no charge.

Hovelman predicted the other newly legal drone operations will charge clients a wide range of prices. "Companies that we've spoken to, the prices have ranged anywhere from $50 per hour to $12,000 a day," Hovelman said. "It depends on the level of expertise and the equipment that you own."

The FAA imposed a set of standard conditions to promote safety on all its recent drone approvals:

• Operators must be licensed pilots
• The drone may fly no higher than 400 feet over the ground
• The unmanned aircraft must stay within line-of-sight of the pilot and a second observer
• No flying over uninvolved people or structures and don't get closer than five miles to an airport

- - - - -

Recently granted commercial drone flying approvals in Washington, Oregon and Idaho:

• 5/15 Snake River Search in Idaho Falls, ID: Exemption granted to use DJI Phantom 2 for missing persons searches in wilderness areas.

• 5/14 Mountain High Aviation of Ashland, OR: This existing charter operator proposes to expand into using drones for aerial surveying, precision agriculture, utility and pipeline inspections, remote sensing in forestry and wildlife monitoring, research, etc. Soon, this company will be the first to use a 55-pound Riegl RiCopter, which can carry heavier payloads such as a LiDAR mapping sensor.

• 5/11 SkyWard IO, Inc. (Portland): Exemption granted to perform research and development on small UAV's and associated UAV software

•5/11 Raecon Industries (U.S. subsidiary in Blaine, WA of Vancouver, BC-based company): Exemption to use Microdrone MD4-1000 quad-copter for aerial inspections of industrial assets and power structures.

• 5/8 Richard Robinson of Robinson Capital, LLC (Sugar City, eastern Idaho): Exemption to operate a DJI Phantom 2 for aerial photography and video for real estate, primarily to market properties to out-of-state buyers.

• 5/8 Aerial Inspection Resources (Portland): Exemption to fly DJI S1000 to inspect and monitor power lines, pipelines and related utility infrastructure.

• 5/5 Take Flight UAS (Boise): Exemption granted to this Boise startup, which was founded by former UAS pilots with the Dept. of Interior. They have permission to fly drones to collect aerial imagery for multiple purposes such as farming, scientific research or emergency response.

• 5/5 High Flight Photo (Port Ludlow, Washington): Exemption granted to use several DJI Phantom quad-copter models for aerial photography and video to augment real estate marketing.

• 4/29 VDOS Global (Corvallis, Oregon): Amended, expanded exemption for aerial inspection and training related to infrastructure and oil rig inspections.

• 4/27 Daniel Achatz (Seattle): Exemption granted to this professional photographer/private pilot to fly DJI Phantom 2 to do aerial real estate photography for clients.

• 4/20 HeliTek NW (Beaverton, Oregon): Exemption to fly DJI Inspire 1 to conduct aerial photography and video to augment real estate listings, track construction or film TV commercials.

• 4/17 Celestial Imaging (Ammon, Idaho): Exemption granted to use DJI Inspire 1 for aerial photography and video for clients such as tourism departments.

•4/16 Pacific Aviation (Cottage Grove, Oregon): Exemption granted to use DJI Phantom drones for aerial surveying, agricultural remote sensing, photography, natural resource monitoring and scientific research.

•4/8 Idaho Forest Group (Athol, Idaho): Exemption granted to conduct aerial imaging of lumber mill operations for safety and monitoring.

•4/8 ColorPhoto (Sisters, Oregon): Exemption granted to photographer Charles Lesowske to conduct aerial real estate photography.

•4/8 Amazon Prime Air (Seattle): Permission to conduct outdoor testing of package delivery drones.

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.