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Group forms to elevate Pa. drone industry

Christopher Ryan, owner of ACE Drone Services in Waynesboro, prepares a drone used for agricultural purposes for a demonstration at Drone Advocacy Day June 11 at the state Capitol in Harrisburg. Ryan said the drone is outfitted with a plastic container that can distribute chemicals in a field more efficiently and precisely than a crop-duster airplane. The newly formed PA Drone Association sponsored the event in hopes of spurring state leaders into supporting the growing industry. Photo/Tom Barstow

The PA Drone Association is on a mission.

A burgeoning industry is literally taking off nationwide, and members of the nascent Harrisburg-based group want to ensure Pennsylvania doesn’t get left behind.

“The key to advocacy is education,” said David Heath, director of the association, which formed in February and is based on North Second Street.

The association has a coming-out party of sorts on June 11 during a nearly day-long event coordinated by Heath. It took place both inside and outside the state Capitol, where representatives of the drone industry met with state leaders and the public to show how drones are changing the way businesses operate.

According to the association, drones will offer $82.1 billion in economic benefits and create 100,000 new jobs in the United States alone by 2025. The association’s goal is to encourage state leaders to support the development of a drone industry – or unmanned aircraft systems, as they are more formally known – because other states already are doing so.

For example, New York is putting up $30 million to pay for a 50-mile unmanned air corridor between Syracuse and Rome, the association said. Other states have become federal test sites for the drone industry, while others have been joining regional partnerships to develop initiatives. As each day passes, Pennsylvania seems to be falling farther behind in developing a domestic drone industry, observers said.

For now, the association isn’t asking Pennsylvania’s leaders for much – except to be aware of what is going on and to offer support as ideas develop, several people said. One goal is to create a working group within the state aviation caucus – a legislative group – to develop a roadmap that would “identify funding opportunities to support critical drone infrastructure,” the association said in a fact sheet.

The association isn’t asking for new regulations, pointing out that drones are regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration, or FAA, which controls U.S. airspaces and already requires commercial drone operators to get a license.

But that doesn’t mean there is no room for action on the state level. In October 2018, Pennsylvania lawmakers passed Act 78, which limits the ability of municipalities to regulate unmanned aircraft unless authorized by the statute.

Local jurisdictions often move to pass ordinances that can interfere with commercial operators, said David Day, executive vice president at Keystone Aerial Surveys based in Philadelphia. That makes education critical, he added.

Keystone does work nationwide and has found that some officials in states – such as New York and New Jersey – are more aware of issues facing the drone industry than those in Pennsylvania. The advocacy day was an effort to change that, too, he said. It also is hoped that Pennsylvania’s government agencies will increasingly adopt the technologies, as agencies in other states have, Day added.

The association maintains that 36 out of the 50 states have transportation departments that fund centers or programs for drone operations. PennDOT, it said, is not among those that have initiated outside programs.

Alexis Campbell, PennDOT press secretary, said PennDOT has an active internal drone program and has been flying drones for several years.

“We’ve recently advanced our operator training and certification program and are currently engaged with a pilot program assessing efficiencies for the use of drones for 3D modeling of stockpiles, excavations and roadway slide areas,” she said in a written response to questions.

Flying into new roles

Several attendees at the June 11 event said they think state leaders will be supportive of ideas to expand drone programs both within state agencies and with commercial applications once they understand the potential.

Tasks such as bridge inspections or aerial surveys that once took weeks to conduct can now be done in a day or so, Day said. Farmers, utilities and others have seen how drones can reduce the costs of projects and inspections. They also have weighed the liability risks and realized they are better off using drones.

Governments, however, seem to have a higher hurdle to overcome when liability concerns are raised, Day said.

Several experts noted the concerns can be eased once the options are carefully weighed. For example, the risks to survey a utility line traditionally would involve workers using ladder trucks to examine high-voltage wires, which is dangerous work that could take weeks. Now, drones with cameras can inspect the same line in a fraction of the time – and without putting people in harm’s way.

As people become more aware of how drones can be used, the industry has taken off, Day and others said.

Keegan Flahive is a remote pilot for Argos Unmanned Aerial Solutions based in Lititz. When the company was founded in 2015, it did a lot of work with real estate companies that wanted aerial views of properties, Flahive said. The company now does work for a number of different clients, including construction companies, utilities and government agencies.

The opportunities for creating new jobs and businesses are vast, said Albert R. Sarvis, an assistant professor of geospatial technology at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology. HU has adapted its geospatial programs to include the use of drones and has sponsored summer camps for students in high school and middle school to encourage interest in the technology, Sarvis said.

Others pointed out that drones have been used in the film and television industries, as well as in surveying rail lines and in police and emergency applications, such as river rescues. One story told during the June 11 event was how cattle had ruined a portion of a farmer’s crops. A drone was able to assess the total damage, which helped justify the insurance claim.

Then there are the spin-off businesses. Ryan Boswell is the Philadelphia-based sales manager for PhaseOne Industrial, a camera company based in Colorado. PhaseOne cameras can be outfitted on various drones to do a variety of work for governments, quarry operators and utility companies, among others Boswell said.

Day said the drone industry is competitive in that anyone can buy a drone for around $500 and set up shop. However, commercial operators are required to take FAA training to become a licensed remote pilot, he and others said.

At Keystone, Day said, prices can range depending on the job and the location. A day of aerial camera work with a licensed remote pilot might cost about $2,000 in some high-density areas in New York or New Jersey and perhaps about $1,000 elsewhere.

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