Nebraska business flying drone in spite of FAA ban

April 15, 2015, 6:45 a.m. ·

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The use of small flying drones by hobbyists is on the increase. But in Nebraska, and across the country, the Federal Aviation Administration says using drones for commercial purposes is still banned in most cases.

On a crisp, spring morning in Lincoln’s Pioneers Park, I found myself in front of a device that looked like something you would see in a spy movie. It was shaped like a large X, measured about a foot across, and had a small camera mounted to its belly. Officially, it’s called an unmanned aerial system. The more common term is drone. (To see video from the drone, click here)

ABOVE: Grant Schlichtman (left) and Justin Kyser (right), co-CEO's of Digital Sky, operate a DJI Inspire 1 (pictured below) as part of their aerial photography/videography business. Kyser said he did get a cease and desist letter from the FAA, but that was while operating under a different company name.To see video from the drone at Pioneers Park, click here. (Photos by Ryan Robertson, NET News)

At the push of a button, four spinning rotors whirred into action and the drone zipped into flight. It weighed less than three pounds, and danced in the sky like a dragonfly. Controlling the drone was Justin Kyser, Co-CEO of Digital Sky.

“We do things ranging from cinematography for businesses and marketing operations, we do crop scouting, aerial scouting, and aerial mapping for farmers,” Kyser said.

Kyser and his business partner, Grant Schlichtman, based their entire business model on using drones.

While business isn’t booming, Schlichtman said it is growing. And soon, Digital Sky will launch a new surveying division.

“The surveying division [would entail] new road construction,” Schlichtman said. “[We can] go out and map a new road if they’re going to pave it, get volume calculations, measurements. Just try to make the process a little easier for someone instead of sending out a crew, and then going out and holding a stick and getting their measurements—we can just fly it over and the engineers have all their measurements right there.”

While most might celebrate two entrepreneurs developing a new business model, there’s a reason why Digital Sky is one of Nebraska’s few drone photography companies. Their operation isn’t exactly legal.

According to the Federal Aviation Administration’s current rules, hobbyists can fly drones during the day, below 400 feet, away from airports and people, and the drone can never leave the operators line of sight.

No one can fly a drone for commercial purposes, unless they have a specific permit exemption, but getting that permit costs thousands of dollars and was originally awarded to mostly movie and television studios. The FAA, however, began diversifying recently and granted special permits to businesses like Amazon, insurance giant AIG, and other entities looking to conduct aerial surveys.

The FAA is asking for public input about their proposed rules. The commenting period ends April 24th, 2015. To add to the discussion, click here.

Kyser, who does have a pilot’s license but not a permit to fly drones, said the FAA restrictions are out of touch with what’s happening on the ground—or in the sky.

“What the FAA has done is they’ve banned something that they don’t really have the legal rights to ban, and they’ve done it in a way that isn’t legally sound,” Kyser said. “[The FAA] can tell us that we can’t use drones commercially, but there’s no law that says we can’t use drones commercially. So it’s essentially just them saying, ‘hey, don’t use drones or else’ but there’s essentially nothing that they can do to us.”

But fighting the FAA on those grounds may not be as easy as Kyser believes. The National Transportation and Safety Board already said the FAA does have jurisdiction to regulate drones.

University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor Matt Waite is one of the nation’s top drone experts, and he’s been following the FAA’s decision-making process.

ABOVE: Professor Matt Waite of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln began researching drone applications in journalism in 2011, when he founded the drone lab at UNL's College of Journalism and Mass Communication. Waite said only businesses with a valid permit from the FAA can operate drones in the U.S. However, to obtain that permit, an applicant must first obtain a sport pilot's license which Waite said is costly, time consuming, and not altogether relevant when flying a drone from the ground.

BELOW: One of the first drone's used by Waite in the drone lab. (Photos by Ryan Robertson, NET News)

“I grossly underestimated the speed of which the FAA was going to move on this,” Waite said.

Waite started the drone lab at UNL in 2011, with the hopes of educating journalism students how to use the devices. But the FAA told him since he’s getting paid, he could not fly drones outside as part of his job anymore, at least not until the rules change. He is free to fly on his days off.

Waite pointed out that it’s an odd set of circumstances when the FAA allows beginner hobbyists to fly drones, but not professionals, who may be more skilled, better trained, and insured through their company.

An FAA spokesman declined an interview for this story, but did say in an email if the FAA comes across someone operating a drone illegally, they "have a number of enforcement tools…including warning notices, letters of correction, and civil penalties."

What the FAA doesn’t have is a way to track down illegal drone operators.

Earlier this year, the FAA made a request to local law enforcement to help investigate people suspected of using drones illegally.

Lincoln Police Department assistant chief Brian Jackson said his officers have been given the FAA guidelines concerning drones. Jackson said officers would step in if, for example, a drone was impeding an investigation, interfering with a SWAT operation, or putting people in danger. But Jackson said it’s hard to know who is flying a drone for fun and who is flying a drone for money.

“We have certain limitations. For example, our ability to gauge what 400 feet above ground level is,” Jackson said. “Unless you’re flying around the capitol where you have an easy gauge, it’s difficult to really look at that as a violation that we could enforce based on our ability to say ‘yes, that was 442 feet, or 385 feet.’ Our ability to do that is somewhat limited."

Luke Hansen is the Director of Advertising at White Castle Roofing in Lincoln. Hansen said he's used a drone sparingly over the course of the last year while on the clock. Hansen said drones can safely survey areas where it would be dangerous for a person to go (i.e. a church steeple). Hansen said he doesn't want to be part of a federal court case involving the Federal Aviation Administration, so likely will not use a drone again until he knows he'll be safe from prosecution. Hansen said he is hopeful the technology will be embraced sometime soon, "I think because of just how useful [drones] can be, that kind of the general fear of the unknown will dissipate with most people and we’ll have just kind of an acceptance. Just like cars. Now they’re everywhere, and they’re dangerous—way more dangerous than drones—but we understand their value, so we accept the risks because we understand their value." ( Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News)

While some say the penalty for breaking the FAA’s rules amounts to little more than a slap on the wrist, not everyone wants to take a chance.

Luke Hansen handles marketing and advertising for White Castle Roofing in Lincoln. He uses the same type of drone as Digital Sky, but for different purposes.

“We’ve used it for church steeples, basically anything where we need to see something and it would be a lot of work or very dangerous for a human to get up there and do that,” Hansen said.

While technically still illegal, Hansen said a drone can survey in minutes what would take a person hours to do. However, he is not ready to go all in on drones just yet.

“It’s really fun, but I don’t want to be a guinea pig in a federal court case. So we haven’t flown it yet this year for anything work related,” Hansen said.

The FAA did release a set of proposed rules in February which would make it easier for more businesses to start using drones. But Matt Waite said when those proposals get put into action, is anyone’s guess.

“It’s federal rule making,” Waite said, “so it’s going to take the time that it’s going to take.”

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