Kevin Coles, owner of Image Michigan, tests the drone he plans to eventually use for aerial photography. Photo by Matt Radick
The Federal Aviation Administration is virtually at war with U.S. businesses trying to use small UAVs — unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones — including businesses in West Michigan.
One aerial imaging company here was forced by the FAA to “cease and desist,” even as others prepare to begin using them.
Meanwhile, the Michigan legislature is considering proposed laws regulating drone use, which even includes use by law enforcement agencies as well as hobbyists and businesses.
“You’re going to see a lot of challenges coming up on this until it’s ironed out,” predicts Christopher P. Baker, a Varnum Law attorney in Novi who has been studying the drone phenomenon.
In January, the online Business Journal published an article about Expertise in Aerial Imaging, a Grand Rapids firm known as EAI LLC, which was founded in 2012 by Eric Snyder and Tommy Knight to capture video and photo images using remote-controlled drones. The company was hired to film an off-road auto race and thrill-seeking zipliners at a North Carolina outdoor center, among other things.
In late June, the Business Journal attempted to reach EAI LLC and received an email from Knight stating the company had been ordered by the FAA to stop using drones and consequently had ended its operations “until further notice.”
Elizabeth Corey, an FAA spokesperson in the Chicago office, said commercial use of a drone requires an aircraft certified for safety, a licensed pilot and a Certificate of Authorization from the FAA.
“There are only two entities that have achieved that,” she said. “They’re both operating in the Arctic.”
Michigan Radio reported in June that one of those is oil company BP, which uses drones for aerial inspection of its pipelines and equipment in Alaska.
Drones also can be used to monitor crops to help determine if irrigation, fertilization or pesticides are needed. Last summer, Michigan State University’s agricultural research department acquired a UAV. It has three sensors: a high-resolution radiometer; a thermal camera, used to monitor plant temperature and hydration; and a laser scanner, which measures individual plant height in centimeters. The drone can fly less than 100 feet above the ground and in most weather conditions, covering a programmed pattern on autopilot.
Law enforcement sometimes uses drones for surveillance or to search for missing persons. Hunters have an interest in using them, as well, and at least one state has passed a law against using a drone to locate game.
“The FAA is currently in the process of developing a proposed rule that will be published later this year,” said Corey. She said it is intended to “provide regulations and standards for a broad spectrum of users.”
Corey said the FAA is mainly concerned about careless or reckless use of drones and the safety of people in the vicinity.
Perhaps the biggest use of drones is for filming, particularly by the motion picture industry. In early June, the FAA announced it is considering petitions from seven U.S. companies that would allow them to film for the movie and television industries with FAA approval. Corey would not identify the companies but said they are on the West Coast.
Kevin Coles, the owner of Image Michigan in Grand Rapids, said he acquired two drones in the spring that he plans to use in his photography business “as soon as it becomes legal.” Image Michigan is a part-time aerial photography business Coles started seven years ago, which has been relying on hiring conventional aircraft. He also uses photography equipment mounted on a 45-foot telescoping mast for sports coverage and security surveillance at outdoor events.
A drone with imaging equipment also would be very useful to the real estate industry, noted Coles.
Owen-Ames-Kimball Co., a Grand Rapids-based construction management firm active throughout the eastern U.S., has a small drone for aerial photography at its construction sites. O-A-K president and CEO Frank Stanek said it started off as a marketing piece, but “it has evolved into a little more” than just marketing.
For example, O-A-K and partner GDK in Holland are building the Jack H. Miller Center for Musical Arts at Hope College, and their architectural firm is in Minnesota. If the architect needs to see some detail in the construction, the drone can fly to that spot to produce close-ups for immediate viewing.
Uses of the drone are “evolving each and every day because it’s relatively new” in the construction industry, said Stanek.
The electric-powered drone, fitted with a video camera, came at “a relatively small cost. It was well worth the investment,” said Stanek. It can sometimes eliminate the need for the much more expensive use of a crane or snorkel lift. With four helicopter-style propellers, it measures about 2 feet in diameter and “kind of looks like a space ship,” quipped Stanek.
Kelly Bublitz, O-A-K’s certified drone pilot, said the DJI Phantom II QuadCopter can fly for up to 22 minutes on a full battery and will alert the pilot when the battery is down to 20 percent. It came with an app for a smartphone, which the pilot uses to control the camera. The software receives a GPS signal giving the UAV a home-base location.
Stanek said O-A-K is abiding by the FAA rules, noting the drone is “for our own internal use, not for commercial use. We can’t charge for it.”
Chris Baker, who is chair of Varnum’s new UAV industry practice group, said Michigan is one of 31 states with drone legislation pending or already adopted. There are two bills pending in the Michigan House, both introduced by Tom McMillin, R-Rochester Hills. While the final form of the legislation hasn’t been approved, Baker said the legislative summaries indicate that, if passed, the bills would:
- Authorize the use of drones in Michigan.
- Prohibit the state government from acquiring a drone without legislative approval.
- Require consent before any person could be surveyed by a drone.
- Limit government agency use to emergency situations and/or a search warrant.
- Establish the unauthorized use of a drone as a public safety felony.
The photography field seems to be the “gray area” as far as the FAA’s actions so far, said Baker, with crackdowns on those that are advertising their capabilities as a business.
Baker said he is still researching the use and regulation of drones because the field is so new and developing so fast.
“We’re trying to get an idea of what it is the industry believes that the FAA is allowing them to do, and what it is that the FAA is actually saying,” said Baker.
The drone industry is frustrated, he said, “because they’re ready to go. They’re telling the FAA, ‘Look, the United States is behind everyone else. We’ve got the technology and we’re going to use it,’ and the FAA is staying, ‘You’ve got to slow down. We’re not prepared to issue the regulations.’”
Smithsonianscience.org reports that curator Roger Connor of the National Air and Space Museum compares the current drone situation to the Wild West because civilian adoption of small UAVs has greatly outpaced the FAA’s ability to regulate them.