Homer drone pilot says federal regs prevent business from taking flight

A Homer business owner wants to use a drone to take pictures and shoot video of properties in Homer. But he says restrictions on drone piloting have hurt his chances of making the business work.

Ash Churchill owns a quadcopter. It’s an unmanned aerial vehicle, also known as a drone. He flies it regularly as a hobby and that’s perfectly legal.

“It is probably about a square foot, has four blades, [a] single battery lasts about 20 minutes. It carries a standard GoPro camera and the camera is connected to the drone by what you call a gimbal,” said Churchill.

The gimbal holds the camera steady in flight. Churchill wants to use the drone in his new photography business, which is currently illegal.

“About a year and a half ago my wife and I were looking for a property to purchase in Homer and just looking on the Internet at hundreds and hundreds of properties [we] realized the extremely low quality of property photos in general,” said Churchill.

Churchill is nursing a coffee in the corner of a local coffee shop. He is an Australian native and his business is called AC Productions. He started his one-man operation this summer. His plan was to sell aerial photographs and video of properties around Kachemak Bay to real estate companies. He already had an interest in photography and real estate.

“That in correlation with the properties around Homer being hard to get to, especially vacant land, combined with the drone capabilities … I just saw a niche that couldn’t be ignored,” said Churchill.

Churchill hasn’t been able to follow through with his idea, though. To fly a drone commercially, the pilot has to get a special exemption.

The federal regulations on drone piloting are murky. Federal agencies insist they’re working on safely introducing drones into the country’s airspace, but it’s taking longer than drone pilots like Churchill would like.

Allen Kenitzer with the Federal Aviation Administration said in a written statement that the FAA has made important steps toward a 2012 Congressional order that the agency bring drone use under the rule of law by September this year.

The FAA missed that deadline but Kenitzer said they are finalizing a set of rules that are scheduled to be published this coming spring. There’s also a new database in which the agency requires drone pilots register by Feb. 19. They’ve approved 3,000 commercial exemptions to businesses — the same exemption Churchill needs.

He also has to get a pilot’s license.

“The drone that I fly at the moment retails at around $1,000. [With] the regulations going the way they look to be going it’ll cost you around $5,000 purely just to be able to fly it. That’s before even purchasing it,” said Churchill.

Churchill says the cost and restrictions are pushing him toward giving up on his drone and just relying on still photography and videos taken from the ground. And he says that’s what the FAA probably wants.

“I think what’s brought about these regulations is trying to slow down the amount of drones being sold and being used. And also because of the severity of the implications of somebody misusing these drones,” said Churchill.

Churchill also believes drone pilot’s rights aren’t being considered. As an example, he criticizes the FAA’s plan to make the names and addresses of drone pilots who register with the agency public.

“I’m all for having regulations [and] guidelines. I’m of the opinion that at this point the regulations are borderline ridiculous,” said Churchill.

Churchill is a month away from taking his citizenship exam and he says the conflict over FAA drone regulations often reminds him of a citizen’s rights when confronting his or her government.

FAA’s Allen Kenitzer said in his statement, film and video production are among the drone uses the FAA has approved for commercial exemptions.

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