New federal rules for drones were launched Monday and sparked a wave of activity across the United States as qualified pilots sought certificates now needed to operate the aircraft, including North Dakota.
The long-awaited rules, which open up commercial and governmental use of unmanned aircraft systems or drones, arrived to much fanfare, including local companies looking to mark the moment in aviation history.
Gathered at 5 a.m. Monday, employees of Grand Forks drone firm SkySkopes sought to get certified for flight under the new rules as soon as allowed by the Federal Aviation Administration.
“We put more birds than we’ve ever put in the air today because the new rules allow for operators to not necessarily fly with what’s called a visual observer,” said President and CEO Matt Dunlevy. “We were able to get more and better aircraft in the air.”
The group set off on an all-day round trip to complete demonstration flights across the region. One of the first flights took place a few miles north of Mapleton, N.D., where pilots flew and gathered video of power lines owned by Xcel Energy.
The demonstration exemplifies what will likely by a routine practice for utility companies down the road, as the use of drones makes checking the condition of infrastructure safer and more inexpensive.
“Commercial entities can start looking forward to doing this as part of their operations, and for us it should mean a strong reliability, more safety for our employees and overall, stepping into that new technology area when it’s so critical to keep the lights on,” said Mark Nisbet, a spokesman for Xcel who watched the demonstrations.
Other flights completed Monday by SkySkopes included demonstrations of operating a drone while the pilot is in a moving vehicle and an air show to celebrate the rules’ release. The company also flew over a farmstead near Hillsboro, N.D., ravaged by a weekend tornado to collect and donate photos of damage to its owners.
Before the SkySkopes group could get flying, the pilots had to receive a temporary remote pilot certificate from the FAA, a feat that proved to take more effort than originally planned.
“Most of us have been up since 4 a.m. hoping that those rules would go live so that our licensed private pilots could go onto the FAA website and get their temporary certificates,” Dunlevy said. “It turned out that there were some kinks in the system.”
After completing an online application and then trekking to the FAA’s Flight Standards District Office in Fargo, the pilots left with temporary certificates in hand. Like many others receiving those certificates across the country, permanent ones are set to arrive in the mail over the coming weeks.
The certificates are one change under the new regulations, known as Part 107. Previously, those receiving permission to fly commercially through an exemption from the FAA needed a private pilot’s license.
Under Part 107, drone operators need to complete an aeronautical knowledge test and other tasks to receive a certificate enabling them to fly rather than spend thousands of dollars to get the pilot’s license.
The rules also relax other requirements set under the previous exemption system.
“The FAA’s role is to set a flexible framework of safety without impeding innovation,” FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said in a statement. “With these rules, we have created an environment in which emerging technology can be rapidly introduced while protecting the safety of the world’s busiest, most complex airspace.”
For those looking to operate beyond standards set by Part 107, the FAA has instituted a waiver process that will allow companies and individuals to apply for permissions to conduct special flights such as those occurring at night or beyond the line of visual sight.
The agency noted in a news release it had issued at least 70 waivers Monday. Those looking for waiver are asked to submit their requests at least 90 days in advance of planned flights.
With the playing field opened up for many more users, the FAA is expecting to see continued growth in the number of uses of unmanned aircraft.
“People are captivated by the limitless possibilities unmanned aircraft offer, and they are already creating business opportunities in this exciting new field,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said. “These new rules are our latest step toward transforming aviation and society with this technology in very profound ways.”