Commercial Drone Rules In 2015 Will Determine Industry Launch

Dec 26, 2014

2015 could be a bellwether year for the commercial drone industry. The Federal Aviation Administration has projected 10,000 of the devices will be in U.S. skies by 2017. They could survey land for oil companies, film aerial shots in Hollywood, and one day perhaps deliver your food. But, the industry’s impact will depend largely on an upcoming federal decision.

Lars Soltmann, an N.C. State Ph.D. student and the flight test analyst for VX Aerospace, prepares the company's prototype drone for its first test launch.
Credit Ben Bradford / WFAE

In North Carolina, agriculture companies are testing sensor-laden drones that can fly over farms and scan the health of crops; realtors have used them to show off homes for sale; aviation companies are designing new models; and, state lawmakers have passed a licensing system and privacy laws for their use.

They are testing at the NextGen Air Transportation Center at North Carolina State University. But beyond testing, they are grounded. Because until the Federal Aviation Administration passes a long overdue rule, drone use is still illegal, except for a few public agencies like the center.

“We’re all in a holding pattern waiting on the FAA,” says Kyle Snyder, the center’s director.

The FAA rule could come as soon as next month. It will govern how companies can use drones under 55 pounds without interfering with airplanes—when and where companies can fly. How onerous the requirements are will shape the industry, but Snyder says there’s no hint at the answer to that question.

“There are lots of rumors, lots of people supposedly seeing sneaks of this, peeks of that, but nothing official, nothing out of the FAA,” he says.

While the rule is expected soon, the FAA has missed its deadlines before. In fact, it was supposed to have the rule done over four years ago. This year, the agency began granting exemptions to a handful of, mostly film, companies, but none so far in North Carolina.