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Drone Pilot Struggles With Federal Regulations

Photo by Quinton Chandler/KBBI
Ash Churchill

A Homer business owner wants to use a drone to take pictures and shoot video of properties in Homer. But, restrictions on drone piloting hurt his chances of making the business work.

Clarification: In the original version of this story we stated using a drone as part of a business would be illegal if the business owner did not receive an exemption from the FAA. That is correct, according to Michael Drobac, an attorney consulted by KBBI. Drobac is a Senior Policy Advisor with the Washington, D.C., law firm Akin Gump Straus Hauer & Feld LLP. However, this is a developing area of law and there are others who disagree. Attorney Peter Sachs argues the FAA does not currently have the legal authority to label commercial drone use illegal.

Ash Churchill owns a quadcopter. It’s an unmanned aerial vehicle or a drone. He flies it as a hobby regularly and that is perfectly legal. 

“It is probably about a square foot, has four blades, [a] single battery lasts about 20 minutes. It carries a standard GoPro camera and the camera is connected to the drone by what you call a gimbal,” said Churchill.


The gimbal holds the camera steady in flight. Churchill wants to use the drone in his new photography business. That is illegal.


Credit Image Courtesy of 3D Robotics
3DR Solo specs

“About a year and a half ago my wife and I were looking for a property to purchase in Homer and just looking on the internet at hundreds and hundreds of properties [we] realized the extremely low quality of property photos in general,” said Churchill.


Churchill is nursing a coffee in the corner of a local coffee shop. He is an Australian native and his business is called AC Productions. He started his one man operation this summer. His plan was to sell aerial photographs and video of properties around Kachemak Bay to real estate companies. He already had an interest in photography and real estate.


“That in correlation with the properties around Homer being hard to get to, especially vacant land, combined with the drone capabilities… I just saw a niche that couldn’t be ignored,” said Churchill.


Churchill hasn’t been able to follow through with his idea though. To fly a drone commercially the pilot has to get a special exemption.


The federal regulations on drone piloting are murky. Federal agencies insist they’re working on safely introducing drones into the country’s airspace, but it’s taking longer than drone pilots like Churchill would like.


Allen Kenitzer with the Federal Aviation Administration said in a written statement that the FAA has made important steps toward a 2012 Congressional order that the agency bring drone use under rule of law by September this year.


The FAA missed that deadline but Kenitzer said they are finalizing a set of rules that are scheduled to be published this coming spring. There’s also a new database the agency requires drone pilots register to by February 19th and they’ve approved 3,000 commercial exemptions to businesses. That’s the same exemption Churchill needs.


He also has to get a pilot’s license. 


“The drone that I fly at the moment retails at around $1,000. [With] the regulations going the way they look to be going it’ll cost you around $5,000 purely just to be able to fly it. That’s before even purchasing it,” said Churchill.


Credit Photo Courtesy of 3D Robotics
3DR Solo


Churchill says the cost and restrictions are pushing him towards giving up on his drone and just relying on still photography and videos taken from the ground. And he says that’s what the FAA probably wants.


“I think what’s brought about these regulations is trying to slow down the amount of drones being sold and being used. And also because of the severity of the implications of somebody misusing these drones,” said Churchill.


Churchill also believes drone pilot’s rights aren’t being considered. As an example he criticizes the FAA’s plan to make the names and addresses of drone pilots who register with the agency public.


“I’m all for having regulations [and] guidelines. I’m of the opinion that at this point the regulations are borderline ridiculous,” said Churchill.


Churchill is a month away from taking his citizenship exam and he’d like to begin using his drone in his business as soon as possible, but he’s not sure if the cost and the hassle are worth it. 


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