New Rules Create Potential for "Drone Economy" In Nebraska

Oct. 12, 2016, 6:45 a.m. ·

A drone flying at Chalco Hills Recreation Area in Omaha. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)

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A new set of federal regulations is making it a lot easier for drone operators to make money and could also open up a whole new economy in Nebraska. Now local drone enthusiasts say they’re thinking about new businesses that could turn their hobby into cash.

For most people who own drones, those small, unmanned aircraft you probably see buzzing around your local park on the weekends, they’re nothing more than a hobby, a fun way to take pictures and video from the air.

But thanks to new federal guidelines released at the end of August, there’s a good chance you’ll soon see more drones in the air making money.

Drone operators at a meet-up in Omaha talk about new federal regulations and test. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)

It’s now much easier and cheaper to fly drones commercially in Nebraska, which could mean the start of what some are calling the drone economy.

At a busy restaurant in Omaha, Ryan Baker and four other drone enthusiasts have gathered around a table. They’re discussing a new drone exam, called the Part 107 test, that will make the process of flying a drone commercially a lot smoother.

“It’s definitely a very doable test and I think compared to the old regulations with the Section 333 and having to have a pilot’s license, it’s a lot more attainable,” said Baker, who took and passed the Part 107 test about a month ago. “I mean, $150 to take the test is pretty cheap.”

The Federal Aviation Administration released its new regulations for commercial drone operations on August 29, and within the first 15 days, more than 5,000 people took the exam, with an 88-percent pass rate. The 60-question, multiple-choice test takes about two hours.

Across town at Chalco Hills Recreation Area, Dustin Shropshire is maneuvering his drone over a nearby lake. The craft has four small rotors and a stabilized camera that takes video and still pictures.

“So right near you, you can definitely hear it, but once it gets up a little way, you’re not really bothering anybody with the sound too much,” Shropshire said, as the drone buzzes about 50 feet above him.

He’s a surveyor by trade and is studying for his Part 107 exam. He’d eventually like to use his drone as part of his job.

“I’m really interested in comparing the data to traditional methods. So go out and fly a piece of property and then have my survey crews go out and topo that property through either our GPS or our robotic station methods and kind of compare them and see how accurate they are to each other,” he said. “I think that will help me decide a final application that I would like to use it for.”

Drones have come a long way over the past few years. Instead of cheap plastic toys, today’s drones are much sturdier, with longer battery life, GPS and the ability to carry an array of sensors that can be used for many different commercial applications.

The Part 107 test and a new set of rules for unmanned aircraft systems could be the start of a new commercial drone reality.

David Silchman owns Nebraska Flight Center in Omaha. It’s one of a handful of FAA testing centers in Nebraska.

David Silchman, owner of Nebraska Flight Center in Omaha, an FAA testing center. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)

He’s seen a steady stream of people come in to take the Part 107 exam and says most of them pass on the first try. It’s a lot easier than the old rules that required commercial drone operators to have private pilot’s licenses and complicated exemptions from the FAA.

“The drone movement is here. There is no way the government can stop it,” Silchman said. “I believe that the best they can do is regulate it and help the people who want to do it right, do it right.”

The FAA predicts there will be 600,000 commercial drones in the air within a year. The federal government says commercial drones could generate over $82 billion for the U.S. economy over the next decade and support 100,000 new jobs by 2025.

Surrounded by half-assembled drones and drone parts, Matt Waite feels like he’s on the front edge of something big. He’s a professor of journalism at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the founder of the Drone Journalism Lab there.

“There is now a clear, a clear and unambiguous path, to somebody using a drone to make money,” Waite said. “107 makes it not the Wild West anymore. There is actually territorial law now and we can sort of move forward from there now.”

He says whether people like it or not, commercial drones are here to stay and they’re soon going to be a regular part of life, whether it’s through the delivery of goods by companies like Amazon or drones buzzing over fields in Nebraska, using sensors to analyze soil or gauge plant stress.

Matt Waite, professor of journalism and drone policy expert at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)

“You can’t un-ring the bell. These devices are here,” Waite said. “We’ve miniaturized computerization and processing power and batteries to such a point that a small flying device that can stay in the air for a useful enough period of time is just a part of the deal now.”

Waite says along with a smoother path for commercial drone operators comes major concerns about things like drone safety, privacy and a big one, private property rights.

“Drones are going to directly jump into that private property place that we haven’t gone to because we haven’t had to,” he said. “We’re going to have to answer the question of where does your control of airspace above your property stop and where does the public street that is the skies begin?”

The new Part 107 rules also restrict commercial operators to daytime flights within line of sight, flying lower than 400 feet and using drones that are less than 55 pounds.

They’re rules commercial drone operators say they’re willing to live with as a new era of flight opens up for them and thousands of others.