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Commercial Drones Coming To Ohio Skies Under Special Exemption

Woolpert gets its small drones from Florida-based manufacturer Altavian.

Commercial drones could be in Ohio’s skies sooner than expected, because the Federal Aviation Administration has granted a Dayton company an exception to the current ban on drones that aren't for government or recreational use.

Dayton-based consulting firm Woolpert is one of just four companies around the country that have been granted a special exemption to the ban on flying commercial unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Preliminary FAA rules on drones allowed companies to apply for special permits; out of 167 applications, seven have been granted for film production operators. Another five were announced Wednesday for various other commercial enterprises; two of the exemptions went to Woolpert.

Matt Hutchinson, a scientist at Woolpert, says the company will start using 15-pound remote control planes to monitor things like water quality, and oil and gas rigs.

“We’re the first mapping and survey company in the nation to be able to provide that,” Hutchinson said Wednesday. At the same time, he says, the drones will act as an upgrade on surveying and monitoring services the company has already been providing to public and private entities. “It’s really honestly no different than what we’ve been doing for forty years already with our traditional manned aircraft, it’s really just a continuation of that.”

The permitted drone technology, the Nova Block III, will be allowed in the air only in rural parts of Ohio, and each specific project also has to get approval in the form of a Certificate of Authorization, or COA, from the FAA. Right now COAs are generally only available to government and educational entities. Woolpert’s other exemption is for a specific monitoring project over federally-owned land in Mississippi.

The FAA has been hung up on figuring out all the details of allowing commercial drones—privacy and safety are among the major issues. In 2013 Ohio was passed up as a possible choice to be one of six test sites for commercial drones around the country, dashing some hopes for the local UAV industry to get ahead of the national curve. The FAA says a set of rules for small drones should be released for public comment by the end of 2014.

Lewis Wallace is WYSO's managing editor, substitute host and economics reporter. Follow him @lewispants.