Florida's Commercial Drone Industry is Nation's Second-Largest, Study Says | New Times Broward-Palm Beach


Florida's Commercial Drone Industry Is Disproportionately Huge, Study Says

Drones are objectively cool. They are flying robots that do our bidding,  shooting high-res video from thousands of miles in the air or dropping off our Amazon packages on time. The 'bots are relatively cheap, which is a blessing for consumers everywhere, but an absolute nightmare for the Federal Aviation Administration, which is doing all it can to make sure these things don't accidentally stab holes into airplanes or take down helicopters.

Florida, specifically, is quickly becoming one of the nation's most drone-heavy states. A Local 10 News report last year showed that the state had the third-highest number of drone-related incidents in the country in 2015. Now, a study released yesterday shows that Florida is basically tied for the highest-number of commercial drone applications in the country. According to the study, this means Florida's nascent drone industry could soon blossom into a whirring, buzzing beehive of activity.

In 2012, Congress, hoping to prevent drone crashes, forced the FAA to regulate the budding drone industry. According to the FAA, "By law, any aircraft operation in the national airspace requires a certificated and registered aircraft, a licensed pilot, and operational approval." But until new, drone-specific regulations can be finalized, the FAA has been doling out "exemptions" that allow private companies to fly them for business purposes in the meantime.

After analyzing the FAA's exemption data, Bard College's Center for the Study of the Drone published a report yesterday outlining which states have led the commercial-drone charge. As it turns out, California and Florida are virtually tied for the highest-number of commercial drone exemptions in the country — between 2014 and 2015, 307 companies were awarded exemptions in California, and 306 were awarded in Florida.

Arthur Holland Michel, the Center's codirector, said the exemptions give a "a fairly strong indication of what the national spread is going to look like" when the FAA actually starts regulating the drone industry.

What's striking, however, is the fact that Florida has just about half the population of California. This means Florida has a significantly higher percentage of drone-using companies than any other state in the nation. (Texas came in at a distant third, while the rest of the country barely seemed to have many drones at all.)

Across the nation, the report said, most companies wanted to use drones to take real estate photos, shoot high-resolution video, or monitor massive swaths of agriculture. These industries are, not coincidentally, king in Florida, where massive, overvalued McMansions butt up against orange groves and commercial farms.

A number of the companies in the center's database (accessible here) are using unmanned aircraft to help with land conservation: Companies like Jacksonville's RS&H, an engineering firm, applied to take aerial photographs of environmental disasters. Other companies, like Palm Beach Gardens' Precision Aerial Filmworks, aimed to shoot video for the film industry.

Michel, however, said he wasn't sure why Florida had such a disproportionately high number of drones.

"I'd hazard to guess it has to do with the real estate industry," he said. "But it could also depend on what the aviation industry looks like down there. There may be a bigger aviation community. That, or the area, geographically, could be more conducive to drone usage."

Commercial drone pilots, he said, are subject to much more regulation than drone-flying hobbyists. Commercial pilots need to have a pilot's license and must keep eye contact on their drone during its entire flight. They need to have a second person spotting them too.

"In theory, commercial drone users are more cautious in the airspace," Michel said. "They have something they can lose — their exemptions. And you have to use certified pilots to fly commercial drones, who know airspace rules." Still, he said, drones are a nascent technology, and some things could still go wrong.

"Drones could lose its link and fly into the wrong airspace," he said. "Or one could malfunction and come down over a crowd of people or cause property damage. These scenarios are just as plausible in commercial use as they are for hobbyists."

If you're walking around Delray Beach, however, you may want to be on the lookout for drones whizzing by with cases of beer.

Read the Bard College study here:

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Jerry Iannelli is a staff writer for Miami New Times. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University. He moved to South Florida in 2015.
Contact: Jerry Iannelli

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