Iowa businesses use small drones despite FAA ban - KWWL - Eastern Iowa Breaking News, Weather, Closings

Iowa businesses use small drones despite FAA ban

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DYERSVILLE (KWWL) -

Several businesses in Iowa are putting small drones to use for commercial purposes.

The Federal Aviation Administration says it's working on regulations that will allow businesses to operate small drones, or unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), but the widespread commercial use of small drones is not yet permitted.

The agriculture industry is one that has been petitioning the FAA for small drone use. Farmers can use the UAS to survey their fields and check for problem areas in their crops.

Three Rivers FS is an ag solution company in Iowa. This summer, the company started using and selling what they call UAVs, or unmanned aerial vehicles.

Sam Wilson is a precision ag specialist with Three Rivers FS and demonstrated the company's UAV Thursday for KWWL.

"We're going to implement them in our crop-scouting program. Basically, fields look a lot different when you get up above them than they do when you're on the ground," Wilson said. "It  helps us pick out patterns in the field. It's easier to see good spots and bad spots in the field, and then when we're crop-scouting, we can know directly where to walk to in the field to check out a bad spot."

Three Rivers FS is selling the UAV, or the "Crop Copter," for $6,000 to farmers and ag consultants.

Wilson said people in the ag industry intentionally shy away from the term "drone."

"'Drone' gets associated with military drones a lot, and, especially right now, since the agriculture industry is working on getting regulation made, it's not a very good association that we want," Wilson said. "There's a lot of privacy concerns and that sort of thing, too, but that's all stuff we're working out right now. For the time being, it's just about using common sense and being courteous to people and being safe."

In Dyersville, Engineering Services & Products Company (ESAPCO) - which is a catalog company that produces the FarmTek, ClearSpan, Tek Supply products and more - uses a drone to help market its greenhouses and other products.

While demonstrating the company's drone, ESAPCO's design construction manager Rob Blush said, "Whenever we either put up a new building or if we have a customer we're going to do a case study on, we'll take this out and we'll be able to fly it up. It goes about 900 foot away, and we take pictures of the building at all different angles...Whatever we need to do to showcase our buildings, we can use this tool to do it."

The company also uses the drone to survey storm damage on roofs or gauge the progress at a work site. Blush said the drone is much cheaper and safer than using a helicopter or plane to grab aerial views or sending a worker onto a potentially damaged roof.

Three Rivers FS and ESAPCO are not alone in their use of small drones for commercial purposes. It's a trend that's popping up nationwide, despite the FAA ban.

The FAA has not been aggressive in fining companies for small drone use.

While the FAA allows model aircraft flight, under THESE GUIDELINES (http://www.faa.gov/news/press_releases/news_story.cfm?newsId=16474), spokesperson Alison Duquette said commercial use of UAS is different.

"A flight that is not for hobby or recreation requires a certified aircraft, a licensed pilot and operating approval," Duquette wrote in an e-mail to KWWL. "The FAA authorizes such flights on a case-by-case basis. To date, two operations have met these criteria, and authorization was limited to the Arctic."

She said many companies, including ag businesses, have submitted a petition to request regulatory exemptions.

"These companies are asking for relief from airworthiness certification requirements as allowed under Section 333 of the 2012 FAA Reform and Modernization Act, and for several operating exemptions," Duquette said. "To receive the exemptions, a company must show that their UAS operations will not adversely affect safety, or provide at least an equal level of safety to the rules from which they seek the exemption. They also need to show why granting the exemption would be in the public interest."

According to THIS RELEASE from the FAA, the administration is working to allow small drone use in certain industries: http://www.faa.gov/news/press_releases/news_story.cfm?newsId=16294

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