The Federal Aviation Administration has approved 24 Kansas businesses to fly drones, according to a new analysis by a drone industry trade group.
According to the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International’s analysis of more than 3,000 FAA exemptions released last week, it puts Kansas in the bottom third of states with exemptions for businesses using drones for their operations. Among states contiguous to Kansas, only Nebraska, with 17, has fewer exemptions.
Colorado has the most among bordering states with 98 approved exemptions, while Oklahoma has 47 and Missouri 41.
The exemption, known as a Section 333 exemption, is a measure that allows companies to safely and legally operate drones for commercial purposes until the FAA issues its final rules on small unmanned aerial systems, which are drones weighing 55 pounds or less.
One of the exemption’s requirements is that the pilot of a small drone hold a recreational or sport pilot certificate. The certificates, while less costly and time consuming than a private pilot certificate, still require classroom time, flying with an instructor and completion of a solo flight.
The low number of commercial drone exemptions is not to say that the state – home to general aviation manufacturers Beechcraft, Cessna and Learjet and suppliers such as Spirit AeroSystems – isn’t doing its part to aid the development of a drone industry in Kansas.
A state official says the development of a drone industry in Kansas is “very important” and agencies such as the Kansas Department of Transportation are helping to assist in that effort.
An earlier AUVSI forecast said drones could mean more than 3,700 jobs and a more than $2.9 billion annual economic impact in 10 years.
But officials of local companies directly involved in the industry think it may take awhile for demand for their business to develop in Kansas. While the interest and activity in the state is enough to sustain their businesses for now, the level of demand is not what they expected.
“It’s a lot slower than I anticipated,” said Andrew Fawcett, chief executive of Blue Chip UAS, which provides aerial surveying and mapping, inspection and photography using commercial grade drones.
‘Tough learning curve’
Fawcett said the bulk of Blue Chip’s work has been in land surveying and mapping as well as utility inspection.
Demand for Blue Chip’s land surveying and mapping has come largely from engineering and construction firms.
“That’s really been the bread and butter for us,” he said.
It also has done some water and power pole utility inspection work for Garden City and McPherson as well as aerial photography, including a project for CNN during the Iowa Caucuses earlier this year.
Still, Fawcett said, demand locally hasn’t been what he expected for Blue Chip, which was the first company in Wichita and the state to receive the FAA exemption. He chalked that up in part to being a new business.
But he also thinks there are a lot of potential companies “just standing outside looking in,” not yet convinced how the use of drones can benefit their operations. In some cases, Fawcett said, “the markets are not ready for you.”
The AUVSI analysis of state-by-state exemptions said more than 78 percent of Kansas businesses with exemptions have less than $1 million in annual revenue and fewer than 10 employees.
“We’re not at 10 employees, and we’re not generating a million in annual revenue,” Fawcett said. “… We surge up to six (employees) depending how our tempo is.
“I don’t think the marketplace is ready for us at this point. They just don’t quite know how to use it.”
John Martens, founder and CEO of NMotion UAS, said his company – specializing in sales of unmanned aerial systems, integration and training to public safety agencies such as police and fire departments – has found most of its work outside Kansas.
“Unfortunately in Kansas overall, we’ve only sold a couple of systems,” Martens said. “We’ve sold more in Minnesota, done more work there and in California, Oklahoma and Wisconsin.
“In Kansas I haven’t seen as much as I’d hoped.”
Both Martens and Fawcett think over time the demand for their services will increase as use of drones increases and awareness grows.
It’s sort of a waiting game, Fawcett said, that requires the operating capital to withstand the lean times.
“It’s been a tough learning curve,” he said.
A Kansas official said the state is trying to assist the industry in its development.
Merrill Atwater, who recently joined KDOT’s Aviation Division as director, said its first effort was organizing last fall’s UAV Summit in Wichita to promote the drone industry.
Since then, Atwater said, formation of a statewide public-private coalition is underway with a goal “to help move along the industry in one voice.”
“That has been an outgrowth of the (summit) we had back in October,” he said.
KDOT also has created a new position, deputy director of unmanned aircraft systems, that it is currently looking to fill, Atwater said.
Referring to the AUVSI economic impact study, Atwater said: “That’s a large impact on the state’s economy. The applications you can do with UAS – construction survey, agriculture – those are all very important.
“We understand UAS is a very important industry to the state of Kansas,” Atwater added. “It’s a growing and emerging market that can help us provide jobs in the state of Kansas.”