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Some Firms Are Not Waiting For Regulations On Commercial Drone Operations

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Photo by Tudor Van Hampton/ENR
Ocelleye's TBS Discovery Pro carries a GoPro camera and a GPS. Flight time on a charge is 17 minutes, but Sherwin, shown above, says that's time enough for serious work.
Video by Luke Abaffy/ENR
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When Greg Sherwin started tinkering with radio-controlled (RC) quadcopters three years ago, he wondered about using them for construction surveys and inspections. In March, his hobby became an occupation.

Sherwin was hired by Indianapolis-based Midwest Constructors as the concrete firm's preconstruction director, but Neal Burnett, president, knew of Sherwin's interest in unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) when he brought him in. He immediately pulled Sherwin aside to discuss ideas for a new business.

Burnett recalls, "I thought, 'Here's a guy who knows how to operate all the systems, understands them, and has the same background as we have from an engineering and construction standpoint." Burnett already had a business plan rolling in his head, but the problem was, "I don't operate RCs."

Burnett also had dreamed of using UAVs to perform inspections of buildings, bridges, industrial plants and other structures. "It's really cost-effective, because when you put a guy on the side of a building you've got to have lifts or swing stages," compared to which UAVs are "really very inexpensive—and with this you get the high-end definition." Safety is another advantage, he adds.

Sherwin and Burnett formed a UAV company, Ocelleye LLC. Burnett is CEO and Sherwin is president. The company name alludes to the clustered ocelli, or tiny eyes, on some flying insects. This summer, they applied for two patents and began engaging clients. One is a local recycler needing to inspect smokestacks and tanks at one of its plants.

The Federal Aviation Administration has tried to fine one photographer $10,000 for using a drone to take shots of real estate, but the case was dismissed by a National Transportation Safety Board judge in March, who ruled that without adopted rules the FAA has no rules to enforce. The FAA is appealing.

Although the FAA has another year to deliver on Congress's order that it adopt regulations to integrate UAVs into the national airspace by 2015, firms such as Ocelleye are not waiting for the FAA to catch up.

"We are operating within 10 to 15 feet of a building," says Burnett. "If the FAA has a problem with that, then they have bigger problems, because that means the plane is in the wrong place." Company lawyers advised Ocelleye to proceed with their business but "tread lightly," Burnett adds.

Ocelleye has invested about $2,500 in two quadcopters and a custom fixed-wing UAV. "We can put any number of sensors on them," Sherwin says. "We can take still images, video, do infrared imaging and we can put air-sampling monitors on them."

Sherwin develops the flight plans and flies the craft himself. If needed, he says, he can slip on a pair of first-person-video goggles to get a closer look at what the UAV "sees" from the flight deck.

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