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Drone Makers Struggle to Get New Rules off the Ground

Airware’s Jesse Kallman sits down to talk about why drone makers really want new safety rules already.

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There may be no shortage of love for the drone industry from investors, but when it comes to Washington, regulators haven’t been quite as enamored.

Re/code recently sat down with Jesse Kallman, the head of business development and regulatory affairs for Airware, the drone software and services developer, to talk about why drone makers need Washington’s help.

Kallman was in Washington earlier this week at a gathering of drone industry officials appealing to Congress for aid in prodding the Federal Aviation Administration to craft new rules for the industry.

The drone guys put on quite a show. They flew a drone at a congressional hearing!

They hosted a free concert with the band OK Go at Washington’s 9:30 Club!

Mostly, though, they schlepped between congressional offices, trying to convince lawmakers to stick language in an FAA reauthorization bill later this year that might force the department to move a bit faster in issuing rules for the industry.

The FAA was supposed to have final rules in place this fall, but it is hopelessly behind. It hasn’t yet even released draft rules and an FAA official said in December final safety rules aren’t likely before 2017.

Kallman is an unlikely lobbyist, in that he isn’t actually a lobbyist at all. He’s an alumnus of Georgia Tech’s engineering program, an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) expert who came to Airware in 2013 after a stint at FAA headquarters in D.C., where he consulted on drone issues.

Re/code: What does Airware do?

Jesse Kallman: We make hardware, software and cloud services for commercial unmanned systems. So it’s everything that’s inside of a lot of these commercial unmanned systems.

We’re talking small — a few pounds — multi-rotor systems all the way up to larger fixed-wing aircraft. We make all of the smart pieces of the system that fly the vehicle autonomously … geofencing, all of these types of features, are part of our products.

Jesse Kallman, head of business development and government relations at Airware
Jesse Kallman, head of business development and government relations at Airware

The FAA was supposed to come out with rules already, but they haven’t done it yet. What has that meant for the industry?

Unfortunately, the delays in some of these rules are pushing a lot of companies, too. We’ve made some announcements with some big companies in the U.S., but we’ve had the most traction and the most success commercially in Europe.

That’s where the most long-standing regulations have been put in place — in places like France, the U.K., the Netherlands, Germany. All of these countries have UAV regulations. There’s no outright ban, even if [they’re using] a simple risk-based kind of model. That’s been how a lot of people have operated for years.

When you say risk-based, that basically means if you’re in the middle of nowhere, Montana, it’s okay to operate your drone, but if you’re in New York City it’s not?

If you want to fly a large vehicle over people in a densely populated area, that should be regulated in a different way than a very small lightweight system flown over a cornfield in a remote part of Nebraska. There’s a very, very different level of risk to the general public, to other aircrafts.

And we’re talking mostly about low-altitude flights, below 400 feet. A typical minimum safe altitude for general aviation is 500 feet. You’re operating in an area where there’s typically no other traffic.

It’s all about regulation that’s proportional to the risks that are posed by the operations.

What’s one of the more innovative things you’ve seen people use drones for?

There’s been some really cool projects — I’m not just talking pure commercial, I’m talking NGOs using this stuff to save lives.

We did a project with MIT and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to do vaccine deliveries in remote parts of Africa. If you’ve got a village in a certain area where the roads are badly damaged or nonexistent, it’s very typical for someone to deliver vaccines by foot. They can’t keep vaccines at a cool enough temperature to last the trip.

But a UAV can fly from Point A to Point B through all the trees and around obstacles to drop the small packages into the village and return to base in 10 or 15 minutes. We’ve been working on that project for some time. It’s an interesting application.

We did a project with a conservancy in Kenya. We did the first one back in 2013, which was a project to protect endangered rhinos. They had a lot of issues with poachers coming into their grounds and killing the rhinos for their horns.

They were interested in putting standard and infrared cameras on a UAV and flying it around the perimeter of the conservancy. At night, for example, a ranger can see on infrared someone trying to enter the grounds and can see where they’re going. They can go out and stop the poachers before they get anywhere near the rhinos.

The UAV Coalition members were in town this week to talk to Congress and make your case. How’s that been going? What have you been hearing back?

It’s been going very, very well. I’ve been very impressed with a lot of these members’ knowledge of the industry, knowledge of the issues.

I would say that a couple of years ago that didn’t exist. People didn’t understand what the commercial UAV market was about, what the benefits were and what the key issues were that were holding some of these companies back.

They had direct questions on what exactly can we do from a legislative standpoint that will help these companies grow but do it in a safe manner.

That’s the whole purpose of the coalitions: To have UAVs in operation in the U.S., but done in a very safe way. Safety is number one for everyone in ensuring that these systems can be flown day in, day out without incident or without posing dangers to people on the ground, people flying in general aviation or commercial aircraft.

What can Congress do?

The big opportunity is for the [FAA] 2015 reauthorization bill, which is up this year. That’s what we’ve been talking to them about.

I think the FAA really wants to see this happen as well. They were restricted to what Congress passed in the 2012 reauthorization. They were forced to operate under that. If there is new language in the 2015 bill that allows them to regulate things a different way or allows them to follow a slightly different process, I think you’d see much faster innovation in the regulatory space.

We talked a little bit about the remote farm field in Iowa or Nebraska. Why can’t we [use UAVS there] now while waiting for a final [set of rules]? We know it’s safe and it’s being done safely in all these other parts of the world.

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