Alliance Pushes Regulators to Allow More Commercial UAS Use

From left: Gretchen West & Lisa Ellman

“Tower climbers typically carry 60 pounds of gear when they go up to the top of a structure. Using drones for inspection can reduce the number of tower climbs” by more than 30 percent, said Gretchen West on Wednesday. She’s Co-Executive Director of the Commercial Drone Alliance as well as a senior advisor with law firm Hogan Lovells. Tower operators can provide clients data using UAS in under 30 minutes, she added.

West spoke during a webinar hosted by the National Association of Tower Erectors, the Commercial Drone Alliance and Hogan Lovells, titled: “Elevate Wireless: An Examination of the Current Legislative & Regulatory Landscape for Commercial Drone Operations.” NATE Executive Director Todd Schlekeway called UAS operations “a perfect fit” for the tower industry as he introduced the speakers. NATE is a member of the alliance.  

Specifically concerning towers, the FAA’s Part 107 rules allow flights up to 400’ AGL or, if within a 400’ radius of a structure, 400’ above the highest point on the structure. The FAA prohibits flying UAS at night; it also requires the device to be in the operator’s line-of-sight at all times. Waivers are granted to bypass some of the restrictions; of the 15,000 waiver applications filed so far, the FAA granted 10 percent of those, mostly for nighttime use, according to Lisa Ellman, Co-Executive Director of the Commercial Drone Alliance and partner at Hogan Lovells. In order to do more with commercial UAS, “We want to be able to fly beyond visual line-of-sight and over people,” said Ellman.

Testing signal strength and network reliability is part of normal cell tower operations, but “time-consuming,” West said. At the University of Washington’s Husky Stadium, AT&T used a UAS to complete an entire analysis within four hours; “without using drone technology, it would take four days,” with employees “physically working the stadium.”

As of May 9, over 90,000 pilots were certified for commercial UAS operations. The FAA says demand for drone pilots could increase 80-fold to 1.6M in next three years.

However, with over 1.1 million drone hobbyists, regulators are worried about security. Current FAA rules don’t require hobbyists to register their UAS, something commercial UAS operators oppose. “The airspace has changed; we all share the same airspace. Having a license plate is part of that ecosystem,” said Ellman.

More than 110,000 commercial drones are registered with the FAA. “That’s the known number. The real number is probably double that,” said Ellman. The alliance, along with regulators, and other stakeholders, are debating issues like how to remotely identify drones, and how to distinguish legitimate UAS use from criminal use.

By Leslie Stimson, Inside Towers Washington Bureau Chief

May 17, 2018

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