PrecisionHawk CEO Comments of Recent FAA Exemptions

by Lauren Ohnesorge for Triangle Biz Journal

Four more companies received drone exemptions from the FAA this week - and one of those companies, Trimble, is being watched particularly closely by those hoping to monetize unmanned aerial systems technology in Raleigh.

Kyle Snyderdirector of the NextGen Air Transportation Institute at North Carolina State University, says the research operation, which flies at locations across the state including Lake Wheeler in Raleigh, expects to receive a special certificate of authorization to do research with the Trimble aircraft in North Carolina in 2015.

But Raleigh has its own drone company - PrecisionHawk, which relocated from Canada to Raleigh and has snagged investments from the likes of Bob Young, co-founder of Red Hat (NYSE: RHT).

Could Raleigh's PrecisionHawk be next in line for an exemption?

CEO Christopher Dean says that an FAA exemption – currently the only legal way commercial operators and researchers can fly unmanned aerial devices – would add an entirely new vertical for PrecisionHawk. And he's pushing to get one too.

He calls the FAA decisions this week "an encouraging move."

PrecisionHawk clients do have applications for exemptions in, notably USAA, which hopes to get approval to use PrecisionHawk drones to survey after disasters.

But PrecisionHawk has yet to submit an application to fly its own drones. That's about to change.

For the past month and a half, Dean says PrecisionHawk has meticulously been working on its own filing. He says the company is within a week of submitting. He expects the exemption to be similar to what California-based Trimble Navigation Limited received this week, an exemption that allows farmers an aerial tool for managing their fields. Trimble provides surveying services in the construction, agriculture, fleet and asset management, public safety and mapping. PrecisionHawk technology is initially targeted toward the agriculture and oil industries.

If the exemption that PrecisionHawk is angling for is approved, PrecisionHawk wouldn't just provide and develop drones. It would have the ability to fly for clients – putting service into the equation. "Our primary model is trying to empower others, so I think empowering companies like USAA and some of the others that will be filing is the core business model, but certainly, we'd like to test one under our own name," he says.

PrecisionHawk drones are already legally flying in North Carolina through a certificate of authorization with the research group at NCSU and the FAA. Thursday, Snyder said his group would be flying with PrecisionHawk technology at its Butner location, "evaluating some new capabilities on a cold day after harvest."

But an exemption from the FAA could allow PrecisionHawk to do its own research.

More, however, is needed for the industry to take off.

"We are on watch with the rest of the community, anxious to see the FAA release the proposed rule for small UAS (55 pounds and below)," Snyder says. "This proposed rule will shine the brightest light so far about what direction we can anticipate teh regulations, certifications and licensing activities to follow. This will help N.C. legislation and those companies that are preparing commercial UAS services."

Snyder says his group has been averaging about 15 hours of flying a month for the last month to exercise its research range across both aircraft and locations. He's also hoping that his initiative will be selected as a "Center of Excellence" by the FAA.