An electric hum filled the air as Shane Beams’ tricopter lifted into the air over a field past the railroad tracks north of East Frontage Road.
He formally launched the business with a online crowdfunding campaign last fall. More than 70 people contributed over $51,000 to the Kickstarter project to get it off the ground, keeping Beams busy in his 450-square-foot converted garage workspace filling orders from 12 countries.
The effort to fill those orders left little time for promoting Vision Aerial and driving sales, and has Beams on the brink of slipping into what he called the “Kickstarter slump.” Combined with the uncertainty surrounding how the Federal Aviation Administration’s regulations currently apply to drones and how the administration’s rules will change in the future, it creates a seemingly unique set of challenges for Beams to overcome before his business is profitable and self-sustaining.
“It’s frustrating,” Beams said. “But with any new technology, regulation is always a step behind.”
Currently, the FAA has a policy statement that allows people to fly drones for fun but not for profit. A policy statement isn’t legally enforceable, but the federal agency is behaving as though it is a formal rule. That, Beams said, is at the root of the confusion over whether it’s legal to fly drones.
The FAA fined a drone operator $10,000 in 2011 after the operator took money for flying a drone around the University of Virginia campus, and it has sent cease-and-desist letters to some commercial drone operators, said Rich Hanson, director of public relations and government affairs with the Academy of Model Aeronautics. The AMA represents model aircraft enthusiasts and has 175,000 members around the country.
The operator appealed the fine to the National Transportation Safety Board and won. The FAA is appealing the ruling though, arguing that commercial drone flights are illegal until formal rules are set in place and that it has regulatory authority over all aircraft, including models.
“It is a sensitive, complex issue,” Hanson said. “Guys are playing ‘catch me if you can,’ one, because there’s no specific regulation against it and two, there’s limited resources for the FAA to go around and police this situation.”
Nick Wolcott, founder and owner of drone videography and photography business Elevated Productions, said he does his professional drone work quietly and out of the way, hoping to coast under the radar until regulations are set.
Most of Elevated Productions’ work is done in remote locations, filming action sports in areas where the general public’s safety isn’t threatened by equipment malfunction, Wolcott said.
“I wish there was some sort of licensing framework. I don’t like the idea of doing something that’s not legit, but I feel like … people are gonna do it anyway and the technology is available,” said Wolcott, who’s also a licensed pilot.
He left his job as a photographer at the Bozeman Daily, Chronicle about two years ago to start the business. Wolcott said it was necessary to dive in regardless of whether there were regulations in place because he had to establish himself with larger companies. He’s done that so far, working with the British Broadcasting Corp. on a “Planet Earth”-style documentary and Sweetgrass Productions on a ski film last winter.
The FAA expects to publish a proposed rule for small drones — which the agency calls “unmanned aircraft systems” — later this year, Allen Kenitzer, FAA spokesman, wrote in an email. After the rule is proposed, the public has an opportunity to comment on it and push for changes in the rule before it becomes codified.
In the meantime, he wrote that the FAA is working to expand the commercial use of drones through operational exemptions. There are 40 petitions from companies in the filmmaking, pipeline inspection, precision agriculture and railroad industries currently under consideration.
There is an expected end date to the confusion: Congress ordered the FAA to make a plan for handling drones by the end of September 2015. Kenitzer wrote in the email that the agency is showing progress toward that goal, but that bringing drones under the agency’s regulatory structure “presents significant challenges, so it will be incremental.” Some of the sticky points are pilot training and aircraft certification, as well as making sure that unmanned aircraft can detect and avoid other aircraft and that they can operate safely if contact is lost with the pilot, he wrote.
The tricopter Beams designed has several safeguards against losing control of the craft. For one, its shape allows the operator to easily determine the drone’s orientation from a distance. It also has a hover mode that keeps it locked in one position, which can give the operator a chance to relax and re-focus on flying. When it loses contact with the operator, the drone will automatically return to where it took off and land there, Beams said. And he said that when the battery gets too low, it’d land itself before it runs out.
“Knock on wood, I’ve never had one of these have an in-flight failure,” said Beams as the drone maneuvered in the wind as it hovered about 40 feet in the air.
Whether the product is of high enough quality is likely the biggest determining factor for whether Vision Aerial will make it in the long run, rather than regulatory uncertainty, said Hanson.
For now, the business appears headed in the direction Beams planned. The Montana native placed his products in the middle of the drone market, giving it some professional-type capability for a price lower than the high-end drones, which can cost tens of thousands of dollars.
“So far it’s been working. It’s my livelihood now, so I’m paying the bills at least,” Beams said.
Jason Bacaj may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 582-2635.