Looming Business in Civilian Drones

In the not very distant future, civilian drones will be a routine part of life in the United States and around the world. They will be flying goods of every kind and will be performing a number of tasks now done by manned aircraft — everything from power line inspections to crop dusting to film and TV photography. Eventually, they will be fully integrated into the national airspace system and fly in the same airspace as manned aircraft and land and take off from the same airports.


Law enforcement and research

While the United States has gotten off to a slow start compared to countries like Canada and Australia that have had commercial drone regulations for years, Congress has been pushing the FAA to issue rules allowing for the integration of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) — the FAA’s preferred term — since the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012. Many public agencies — especially law enforcement and research universities — have already received FAA approval to operate drones and do so on a regular basis. And even without FAA approval, many small commercial drones are being flown to further such varied business interests as crop monitoring, roof inspections, and aerial photography. Many news organizations are routinely using footage of breaking news events shot by drone photographers.


Lobbying for commercial use

Many more commercial entities are poised to start flying unmanned aerial vehicles — that range in size from smaller than a bird to a full size 747 aircraft — just as soon as the FAA issues regulations or otherwise approves them to fly. While the regulatory process can take years, even a decade or more, powerful lobbying groups are behind the latest push. Recently, a group of 33 organizations — including AOPA, NBAA, GAMA, HAI, to name a few — sent a letter to the FAA Administrator urging the agency to hurry up and issue rules or use its exemption authority to allow greater commercial use of UAS. The FAA signaled this month that it would do just that, and I expect the FAA to soon begin announcing exemptions for a number of UAS commercial operators, especially using small drones under controlled conditions.


Now is the time to explore

This looming increase in unmanned aircraft systems is clearly a career and business opportunity for mechanics and maintenance technicians who are interested in this exciting new technology. Now is the time to explore how you can take advantage of it. Dozens of schools are offering programs and certifications in UAS operations. As with manned aircraft, actual experience flying them will very likely make you more marketable.

But remember, maintenance needs are not limited to the aircraft itself; according to an internal FAA Order 8130.34, maintenance programs for UAS “must include all supporting systems and equipment, for example, ground stations, launch and recovery systems, and backup generators.”

While routine use of larger drones may be a number of years away, this is the time to start exploring how to enhance your credentials to take advantage of what many predict will be a huge influx of new jobs.


John Goglia has 40+ years experience in the aviation industry. He was the first NTSB member to hold an FAA aircraft mechanic’s certificate. He can be reached at gogliaj@yahoo.com.