BUSINESS

Proposed U.S. regulations for drones expected soon amid soaring sales

FAA plans to unveil proposed rules for commercial drones by year's end. The public will then get to comment

Any day now, federal regulators will propose rules for safely operating small commercial drones over the U.S.

But the fledgling drone industry — in Los Angeles County and across the nation — has not been waiting to take off. Sales of the robotic flying machines are soaring.

This month several thousand people flocked to the L.A. Memorial Sports Arena near USC for the commercial drone industry's first expo.

Gauging from the energetic crowd and busy industry booths, spectators could easily forget that flying a drone to make money is illegal, and new rules won't be finalized for months.

The Federal Aviation Administration says that by year-end it plans to propose rules for commercial drones weighing less than 55 pounds. The public will then get to comment.

Near the Los Angeles expo entrance, a booth for DroneFly Inc., a Westlake Village start-up, was promoting its small helicopter-like drones with the help of music and a DJ. Young women in crop tops and short skirts attracted interest in the company's drones that it was selling to anyone, including kids and professionals.

"Drones will affect and change the world — much like automobiles, but on a much larger scale," Taylor Chien, DroneFly's 30-year-old co-founder and chief executive, proclaimed in a video playing on a big screen.

The video showed footage taken by the company's camera-equipped drone as it flew through downtown streets bordered with skyscrapers, along the Los Angeles River and over nearby neighborhoods, before landing with a thud.

Not everyone was impressed. "It frightens me. It really does," David Morton, a retired Federal Aviation Administration inspector and speaker at the expo, said when a person in the crowd asked about DroneFly's video 15 minutes later. "The technology is way ahead of the regulatory environment."

Drones have hit buildings and people, but so far there have been no reports of serious injuries in the United States. A growing concern is the almost daily reports by pilots who see drones flying dangerously close to their aircrafts.

Two aircraft on approach to Los Angeles International Airport in May reported seeing a "trash can-sized" drone at 6,500 feet, according to a report filed with the FAA.

In October, a small plane flying above Burbank at 8,000 feet reported seeing a red-and-black drone, measuring three feet across, passing just off its wing in the opposite direction.

A Life Flight helicopter in Pennsylvania had to make a sudden hard turn when a nurse on board noticed a drone flying fast toward the craft.

YouTube has videos of drones flying out of control and then disappearing. The "flyaways" can be caused by faulty programming, interference with the drones' GPS systems or lost connections with the ground controller.

The FAA's ban on flying commercial drones until regulations are in place has clearly held back the industry. Yet some entrepreneurs have grown tired of waiting and are operating the unmanned robotic flying machines anyway — spurred by the agency's lack of enforcement.

Sales are increasing fast as the drones become cheaper, more powerful and easier to fly. Drone prices start at under $50 on Amazon.

Frank Tesoro, DroneFly's 30-year-old president, said the company that he founded with Chien in a garage sold $3 million in drones in 2013 — its first year of operation. This year, he said, the company is set to triple that.

Evidence of the industry's booming sales comes from Parrot, a French firm that is one of the few drone makers that is a public company. The firm said last month that its third-quarter sales of the machines climbed 130% over the same period last year.

The public often connects drones to their controversial use by the military. Organizers of the expo, however, said they wanted to promote the technology's many promising commercial uses.

Farmers want to use drones to monitor crops and improve yields. Industrial companies see using them to inspect smokestacks, pipelines and other hard-to-reach property. News media groups envision them as reporting tools.

Only a handful of companies have received an exemption to fly drones commercially. Anyone, however, can fly a drone for fun or personal use — as long as national safety guidelines are followed.

Expecting thousands of drones to be given as Christmas gifts, the FAA began a safety campaign this week, reminding amateur operators of the rules. The guidelines require operators to keep drones below 400 feet, always within sight and at least five miles from airports.

Entrepreneurs have been waiting for years for the FAA's rules for commercial drones. Many expo attendees said they fear the proposed rules will be so onerous that many people will be kept out of the business.

Among their concerns is that the agency will require drone operators to get a license similar to what is required of commercial pilots — a certificate that can take many months and cost tens of thousands of dollars.

"Licenses hold you accountable for doing the right thing with the technology," Morton told a roomful of entrepreneurs and others at the expo, which attracted dozens of companies and an estimated 4,000 people.

"We want to follow the rules," A.J. Jolivette, chief executive of Terosaur, a drone firm in Huntington Beach, responded. But if the rules are too strict, he said, it will cause people to "go around the regulations."

So far, the agency has filed notices of enforcement action against just five people who were flying drones commercially.

Raphael Pirker was fined $10,000 after he used a drone to film a promotional video of the University of Virginia. The FAA contended that he had operated the unmanned glider without a license and recklessly, nearly missing a pedestrian and buildings.

Pirker challenged the fine, but last month the National Transportation Safety Board ruled the FAA had the power to punish drone operators for reckless behavior. An administrative law judge must now determine whether Pirker's flight was reckless.

During an expo panel, the chief executives of four drone companies, including Chien, spoke of trying to succeed despite the ban on flying commercial drones.

"I can teach anyone to fly in five minutes," Chien said. "Who hasn't had the dream to fly?... It's a huge movement, and it's here to stay."

melody.petersen@latimes.com

Twitter: @melodypetersen

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
74°