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St. Louis companies eye business in the sky as FAA prepares for commercial drones

Joseph Leahy / St. Louis Public Radio

Last month, a small DJI Phantom quad-copter hovered over traffic on Grand Blvd. to film the Kranzburg Arts Center in midtown St. Louis. Adam Hecker of the local marketing agency Switchpiloted the white, X-frame aircraft with a remote control and his iPhone from the sidewalk.

“We’ve had five days of shooting now, out here in the city,” he said after landing the drone near his feet. “This is definitely the tightest area we’ve done so far. It’s a little nerve-racking, but we got it done.”

Credit Joseph Leahy / St. Louis Public Radio
Adam Hecker, s video editor and quadcopter pilot for the marketing agency Switch, displays the company's first drone.

The flight is part of the company’s first project featuring footage that was previously impossible to attain without a drone, saidHecker.

Over the next decade, the skies above St. Louis and the rest of the US are expected to populate with an increasing number of such unmanned aerial systems (UAS) or drones. Last week, the FAA proposedlong-awaited rules for commercial use of the technology.

But when, where and how drones are integrated in US airspace is still unclear. The FAA’s proposed rules will take at least two years before they can get final approval. They’re currently subject to a 60-day public comment period.

For now, commercial use of the technology is banned by the FAA, with a few exemptions, until regulations can be established to ensure safety and privacy. Switch, along with at least a few other media companies that have begun flying in the area, could technically face a $10,000 dollar fine from the FAA.

In many cases, people operating drones for commercial purposes are simply unaware of the prohibition, said DaemonLercelprogram director for St. Louis University’s Center for Aviation Safety Research. Their relative low cost, enormous potential and ease of operating are driving many companies to move forward on their own, he said.

“I hear that a lot: that there are folks that are frustrated and have decided to move ahead without the proper approvals in place,” he said.  “I’m not advocating that in anyway, but I understand why folks are doing that.”

Lercel is also St. Louis’ chapter president for the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems InternationalAUVSI, which estimatesthat the US loses about $10 billion in potential business every year the FAA’s commercial drone ban continues. Between 2015 and 2017, Missouri is expected to lose roughly $260 million in economic activity.

Enforcing the ban in the St. Louis region has been relatively minimal for the time being. FAA representative Elizabeth Corey wrote in an email that only one website in the St. Louis area has been contacted by the agency for advertisingUASservices, but would not disclose its name. Otherwise, she indicated the FAA has conducted no investigations or taken disciplinary actions for violations in the region.

Other ventures where the region is likely to see drones in the future include public safety entities, such as the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department. Police Chief Sam Dotson has been an outspoken advocate for their use as a “force multiplier” that could not only cut costs and provide valuable evidence for prosecuting criminals but also provide information to prevent crimes before they occur. Dotson has suggested that such data collected by drones in the sky above St. Louis could be integrated into the department’s real-time surveillance center, which has been planned for the second floor of the police department’s headquarters. However, Dotson has recently said no police resources have yet been devoted to researching or acquiring drone technology for the department.

Other more novel applications in St. Louis could involve restaurants and other retail businesses. Clayton Parks and David Culver are co-owners of the start-up company Arch Drone which offers custom drone designs, manufacturing, flight training and repairs. Parks and Culver are also proprietors of Flying Rolls, a sushi restaurant on Forest Park Pkwy near St. Louis University, and have floated aspirations to develop take-out delivery capabilities with drones for students on campus.

An application, more likely to fly in the near future could involve area mapping and surveying for road projects. Last summer, Missouri’s Department of Transportation attempted to acquire the technology for a project near Kansas City, according to TomSeiler, of Seiler Instrument Co. in St. Louis County. His company is one of the first in the nation to offer drones manufactured by the company Trimble. He saidMoDOTcontacted his company about purchasing a drone but eventually concluded that getting regulatory permission from the FAA was not feasible at the time.

“I thinkMoDOT, when they saw the extent of the bureaucracy there, decided it wasn’t worth their time … at this point in time,” he said.

Representatives forMoDOThave been unable to provide any information regarding this subject.MoDOT’sfinancial services department has asked St. Louis Public Radio to pay $120 for its sunshine records request for documents related to the effort.  

One company that’s also waiting for the federal regulators to act is the local aerial surveying and mapping company Surdex, based at the Spirit of St. Louis Airport in Chesterfield.

Credit Joseph Leahy / St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis-based aerial surveying and mapping company Surdex has two fixed-wind UAS and is planning to expand the technology into its operations.

The company currently owns two fixed-wing drones, anAltavianNova Block III and a smaller TrimbleUX5, and is working to integrate the technology into its operations that today rely almost entirely on manned aircraft.

“The flight piece of this is solved and the mapping piece of this solved. It’s really the FAA not letting us into the airspace,” said SteveKastenSurdex’sVice President of Business Development.

The only way for Surdex or any business in St. Louis to get around the FAA’s virtual ban now is applying for what’s known as a section 333 exemption, which, if granted, still requires a licensed pilot to fly the aircraft, said Kasten.

“And then once we have that we would have a pick a place to fly and submit for a Certificate of Authorization or a COA and once the FAA looked at that flight area they would have to approve it and then we would be able to fly.”

According toSurdex’sDirector of Survey/UASTechnologies, Jim Peterson, the company was planning to apply for the exemption but that’s up in the air now as it may be simpler just to wait until the FAA opens up the airspace.  For now, Surdex is keeping its drones grounded, he said.