The prospect of drone-dotted skies across Texas isn’t such a far-off thought.
The technology exists, and Gov. Rick Perry even signed a law regulating their use last week.
While the legislation provides some oversight, it carves out some strange exceptions. And the burgeoning industry is waiting for the FAA to establish federal regulation.
The practical application of unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, can run the gamut. But in Texas, their only legal application is for hobbyists, says Colin Guinn, CEO of DJI Innovations – the largest producers of UAVs in Texas.
Guinn says UAV interest is driven by police and fire departments, real estate surveyors and environmental groups. The Arlington Police Department was already granted permission by the FAA to use two UAVs in March.
But the brunt of UAV use, he expects, will come from television, news and film organizations – as a cheaper alternative to helicopters for gathering footage. But the FAA still hasn’t ruled on just how drones can be used in commercial purposes.
Congress ordered the FAA last year to revamp their policies by 2015. But Guinn says many waiting to use UAVs are grounded until the regulations come down.
“It's just a matter of the FAA and when they want to make it legitimate,” Guinn says. “I think they're really starting to open up that faucet for the public sector to get a certificate of authorization to use these systems.”
Michael Schneider of the Texas Association of Broadcasters (TAB) says news outlets in Austin and throughout the U.S. are still waiting for that faucet to open up – and that once it does, it will alleviate the burden of contracting helicopters for aerial footage.
“The reason we want to use this tech is because it’s a lot cheaper than helicopters,” Schneider said. “No newsrooms in Austin have a 24-hour helicopter, and it’s a far cheaper prospect than having a helicopter.”
All of which brings us to this drone’s-eye-view of downtown Austin.
Guinn took KUT News to Zilker Park, where he shot this amazing footage. He’s able to shoot video using a UAV because the footage is for non-commercial purposes over public property, it’s not specifically targeting any person or property owner and it is under the 400-foot ceiling required by the FAA.
Like other broadcasters, KUT News can’t go out and shoot footage of its own – because the FAA has not yet provided uniform regulation for press outlets shooting for commercial purposes.
Both Guinn and TAB’s Schneider say the Texas law regulating private and public use is strong, but Rep. Gene Wu, D- Houston, expressed concern that the bill provides unrealistic penalties, calling it a “zebra law” in an interview with Texas Public Radio.
For instance, the law would punish those snooping on private property with a Class C misdemeanor for crossing over private property lines with a camera and a Class B misdemeanor for disseminating those images without permission if it’s determined the photographer acted with malicious intent.
“You go from one spot, it's legal. You move over just a little bit, it becomes illegal. And then you move over a little bit again, it becomes legal,” Wu said. “It'll be extremely confusing to law enforcement and to the average citizen.”
While the use of drones for commercial use is up in the air, the technology is still advancing: Guinn says an upcoming update of DJI’s Phantom will allow users to control a UAV using an iPhone.