CEDAR FALLS | Mike Tully is building a business on the notion that drones perform a lot of tasks that airplanes can’t.

And, now that his company, Cedar Falls-based Aerial Services, now is authorized to fly drones for commercial purposes anywhere in the U.S., Tully, a company partner, intends to prove the flying machines’ worth.

In May, Aerial Services, a remote sensing and mapping company, received approval from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration for a Section 333 exemption. As a result, the company now can fly a SenseFly eBee drone at or below 500 feet above ground level anywhere in the U.S., except over populated areas and near airports. Tully said additional unmanned aircraft systems will be added to this exemption.

“This marks an important milestone for Aerial Services as we move into a mapping future that exploits the powerful capabilities of unmanned remote sensing systems,” Tully said. “The continued rapid innovation and development of this technology promises to revolutionize remote sensing.”

The company has not bought its own drone yet – and won’t until the FAA adjusts its regulations on drone use, Tully said Dec. 8.

The FAA already is moving in the direction of tighter rules on drones. Last week, for instance, the agency announced that, as of Feb. 19, 2016, all drones weighing between 0.55 to 50 pounds must be registered with their owners’ names and addresses in a national database. Violators can face civil penalties of up to $27,500 and three years in jail.

“The FAA is very slow,” he said. “The regulations are still in effect that limit what we can do so drastically and limit the efficacy of a drone to make money.”

A general overhaul of the rules is expected by mid-2016, Tully said.

When they do change, the company wants to be ready, he said.

“We continue to explore the possibilities and are getting ready for when we might be able to use them more effectively at that time,” he said.

Fad or trend?

Drone use is becoming popular, not just with company but with consumers, who just want to get a view of their property from 400 feet up. Walmart and other retailers are offering some consumer models equipped with cameras for under $100. Analysts are anticipating brisk sales over the Christmas shopping season.

According to research published by Business Insider earlier this year, sales of drones for non-military use were expected to be around $1 billion in 2016 and triple by 2024.

“The recreational market for these drones is exploding,” Tully said. “They expect to sell a million over Christmas.”

Information technology and retail expert Charles King, principal analyst with Heyward, Calif.-based Pund-IT Inc., agreed.

“From a price/performance perspective, consumer drones are likely to be popular gifts this holiday season,” King said. “We're already seen growing interest in drones beyond the usual group of early adopter tech-enthusiasts, and numerous Asian drone manufacturers are bringing products to market at a wide variety of price points.”

On the other hand, quality and performance vary from drone to drone, and that could hold down sales in the long run, King said.

“That’s a recipe for a short-term fad if enough consumers buy products so shoddy that they're put off drones after that point,” he said.

Another issue is a “growing number of goofballs” who are use drones for nefarious purposes, including spying on neighbors and interfering with legitimate aircraft, including police helicopters, King noted.

“If clueless hobbyists become the consistent, public face of drones, it could significantly injure the segment,” he said.

Rules likely to focus on abuses

Those same abuses also seem to be impacting the uptake and opportunities for commercial drones, and FAA regulations should address that issue, King said.

“Companies, including Amazon, appear ready to rollout limited drone-based delivery services but are being held up by understandable concerns from the FAA and other agencies,” he said.

Indeed, as drone usage grows, the sky grows more crowded, which cries out for some sort of regulation, Tully said.

“This is one of the biggest concerns with the FAA,” he said. “Before drones, there were 7,000 aircraft at any point in time flying around. Now, we’re looking at a million drones being purchased and flying this Christmas, and they’re flown by any and everybody, so there’s all kinds of potential issues. They don’t have a solution for it yet.”

Tully said the profit potential of drone usage in the commercial sector remains limited – for now.

There are immediate applications available in the areas of precision farming, aggregate volumes, infrastructure inspection, real estate, and others, Tully said.

“Our clients in forestry, agriculture, utilities, transportation, and many other markets will see real benefit from the application of this astonishing new technology.”

Commercial applications growing

Drone technology takes companies like Aerial Services to a new level, Tully said.

“We’re a remote sensing and mapping company, and drones represent just another tool to do this at one level,” he said. “At another level, it’s far more complicated. For anybody to get into the national airspace, it will completely change the business models of remote sensing companies like ours.”

Some baby steps will be necessary before drone use fully takes off, Tully said.

“Now, because their commercial uses are limited to visual line-of-sight only, the only commercial application is how far I can see it with my bare eyes,” he said, referring to a limitation known as “line-of-sight.”

“That kind of limits the applications that are possible,” he said.

But there are immediate opportunities.

“The low-hanging fruit is precision agriculture, where we need perhaps frequent photography of small areas repeatedly during a growing season,” Tully said. “With a manned craft, it’s too expensive, but with a drone, it is very doable.”

The amount of information a farmer can glean from a drone sweep of a field is “substantial,” Tully said.

A drone, which operates on battery power and weighs as little as a couple of pounds, even when carrying a digital camera in its belly, can eyeball a 50- to 200-acre crop field in minutes and instantly relay any information on deficient growth that might benefit from replanting, fertilizing or spraying.

Two operators generally are needed for this type of job – one, who monitors the fight and collects data on a laptop, which has programmed flight coordinates from takeoff to landing; and a visual spotter who keeps an eye on the drone as it goes about its work overhead.

“Farmers find a lot of added value to this, since a drone can spot problems that the farmer might not detect even if he was to go into the field,” Tully said.

UNI drone helps out

With FAA approval now in hand, Aerial Services brought Patrick Pease, geography department head at the University of Northern Iowa, and Dylan Nielsen, a graduate assistant in the department, to the company’s campus in the Cedar Falls Industrial Park to show off the capabilities of a Swiss-made SenseFly eBee drone.

Pease manned a laptop, from which he programmed the instrument for takeoff, flight coordinates and landing.

Nielsen loaded a camera, checked the 30-minute battery and picked up the plane.

“Hold it and feel how light it is,” Nielsen said.

Indeed, the plane felt like a toy foam plane.

“It is foam,” he said.

Nielsen then took the plane in hand and, on command from Pease, gave it a firm back and forth shake.

The 3-pound plane, which has a wingspan of about 30 inches, whirred to life and took off, climbing to a preprogrammed altitude of about 400 feet in about a minute.

The drone flew several wide circles over the Aerial Services grounds and an adjacent field.

“I’m not doing anything; it’s flying itself,” Pease said as he monitored the flight on the laptop. “It’s completely automated, even the landing. It’s preprogrammed where and how it’s going to land, but then it executes the landing on its own, using GPS data.”

The drone flies at a top speed of 25 knots – or about 28 mph -- with no wind, but its speed can be adjusted depending on the drone’s assignment, Pease said.

“That’s optimized for taking imagery,” he said. “You can slow it down and speed it up. But mostly, you’re setting up a mission and really the software optimizes the speed based on how long it needs to take between photos. It sets up an optimal speed based on the other conditions you set up for it.”

The eBee is one of several models SenseFly makes. The drone flying around Aerial Services, which UNI owns, cost $18,000.

“A few add-ons take it over $20,000 fairly quickly,” Pease said.

Technology imported from Europe

Drone technology is largely a European phenomenon, and most models are made there, Pease said.

But, Pease noted, that will change when FAA issues its final guidelines next year that will enable anyone who can pass an online test to qualify for a license to fly one.

U.S. manufacturing will follow quickly, he said.

“It’s fair to say the U.S. market is starting to take off now that the FAA has finally begun to set some regulations,” he said.

Its flight path completed, the drone then started on its descent. It darted downward, on a steady path toward a programmed landing target in a grass strip next to Aerial Services’ building.

“We can land it right away, abort missions,” Pease said. “Inside, there’s some really smart artificial intelligence that has all sorts of protocols that uses GPS signals, uses signal with the ground station, safety protocols to make sure it doesn’t do anything unusual.”

The plane can’t veer from its course, and it won’t hit anything on the ground when it lands, Pease said.

“It can’t run loose; it has proximity sensors,” he said.

Indeed, the drone came home precisely when it was programmed to do so, and it landed within 5 feet of its target.

The trial run was emblematic of the business potential drones have, Tully said.

“I think it’s really going to open it up,” he said. “You’re going to find a lot more people finding a lot more uses for them.”

Companies like Amazon have voiced an interest in delivery goods by drone. For now, the FAA says no on that plan.

But, ideas like that are still out there. And, drones have a lot of other capabilities, some of which can apply to life-or-death situations, Tully said.

“It’s already being used by fire and rescue groups,” he said. “In emergency situations, they’re heavily using it.”

There are uses for mining operations, real estate marketers and construction, Tully noted.

Pease draws a clear distinction between drones used for fun and those designed for business.

“There are a lot of drones for sale, but it is worth making the distinction between recreational RC aircraft and unmanned systems for work/business,” Pease said. “Much of what you see advertised are actually just remote controlled quad copters with a camera. Most of the cheaper ones are manually controlled with fairly low-quality cameras. Those are mostly designed for recreational use.”

There are some “mid-priced” units that are fairly simple but capable of carrying a high-quality camera, Pease said.

“Those will be appropriate for applications like real estate and photography,” he said. “The film industry has already made very good use of those systems. The commercial and scientific applications that will drive the industry outside of recreation and photography is focusing on more sophisticated -- and more expensive -- systems with automated mission controls, more sophisticated imaging systems, and changeable imaging systems.”

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Business Editor at The Courier

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