Supporters of drone development are anxiously awaiting a first draft of Federal Aviation Administration regulations expected to come out soon. Right now hobbyists can fly drones—the industry term is unmanned aerial systems or UAS—but companies are prohibited from flying them outdoors unless they have special federal authorization for individual flights. The FAA said it would release a proposed rule by the end of 2014 to regulate commercial drones in U.S. air space, but that deadline came and went.
The delays follow an FAA decision in late 2013 not to use the greater Dayton/Springfield area as one of its six drone testing sites around the country. Many in the Dayton area had high hopes about getting into the commercial UAS business with a jump-start on other cities, but despite $1.5 million in state funds spent on the application, the region was passed over.
Today the Ohio/Indiana UAS Center and Test Complex is based in Springfield in a shiny, sleek building—that’s mostly empty. Director Dick Honneywell says right now they have a staff of six.
“We’ve staffed up at a level that allows us to work with the state agencies and work with the universities,” he said. The state-funded center helps public agencies apply for Certificates of Authorization, or COAs, to fly drones for educational or research purposes. “[It’s] pretty restrictive, pretty hard, but we can do that today and we think that that gives a foundation for businesses to get started.”
The Department of Transportation estimates the center’s annual budget in 2014 was about $1.5 million in DOT funds, although the DOT says only about a third of that money was actually spent. The center partners with the Clinton County Port Authority, City of Springfield, Sinclair Community College, Clark State Community College and Cleveland Metro Park on UAS projects. Honneywell says the center is also working with state agencies like the Department of Corrections to help them figure out how unmanned aerial technology could be used in the future.
Despite the delays, over at Sinclair Community College a whole drone training program is prepping people for careers in the field. A high-tech manufacturing lab is about get redone for the UAS students, and the school is building an indoor flight range next door.
“You know we completely understand the FAA’s perspective that, you know, their main job is safety,” says Andrew Shepherd, who heads the UAS program in the Workforce Development Department. He says even without widespread commercial uses in action, students may be able to use their training by working with military contractors in the area.
Once the proposed rule does come out, there’s a public comment period before a final rule—all told it could be 2017 before commercial drones are in the sky.
Some students at Sinclair are worried the rules will require a pilot’s license.
“I think that would stunt the growth of the industry and it would keep it into the hands of already the big boys,” said Scott A. Mitchell, who’s in the UAS 101 course at Sinclair. “The little guys need to grow, and they can grow...and I hope that they don’t have tight restrictions.”
It’s not clear yet whether the rules will draw a line at drones that are under ten or under fifteen pounds and make it easier to fly those; Honneywell at the UAS Center says he hopes there will be some break in the rules to make smaller hobby-sized drones easier to get into the air.
A few states have gone ahead and passed their own drone laws to address privacy and safety concerns.
But in Ohio, a house bill that would require police to get a warrant for drone use never came up for a vote last year, and the Republican who introduced it isn’t in the statehouse anymore. The ACLU of Ohio spoke in a house committee hearing raising concerns about how drones could be used for surveillance.
The FAA rules could be out any day now, and are expected to garner potentially tens of thousands of public comments.
Lewis Wallace is WYSO's managing editor, substitute host and economics reporter. Follow him @lewispants.