A lot of people are paying a lot more attention to unmanned airborne systems (UAS) for mapping due to the U.S. legislation that became law when President Obama signed the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 (H.R. 658) on Feb. 14, 2012. But we’re still looking at years, not months, before the skies open up for commercial use of these innovative geospatial data collection devices.

The law calls for the FAA to open the national air space to UAS by September 2015. There is a provision for early access to emergency responders flying lightweight UAS, but that doesn’t affect most geospatial professionals. However, there is another provision that provides early access to vehicles weighing less than 25 kg; the bill calls for regulations to be in place for these devices to be able to fly in 27 months. That calculates out to the end of May 2014 if you start with March 1, 2012. For most commercial operators who hope to begin surveying and mapping with unmanned aircraft, mid-2014 is a good target date.

Still, don’t wait two years to begin planning. There are things you can do now to prepare for the coming market shift.

Those who work for federal, state or local government agencies can already apply for a certificate of authorization. However, these certificates are only being issued if every i is dotted and every t is crossed. Some government agencies have been unsuccessful with their applications, so it’s best to consult with experts who deal with the FAA and can provide guidance on how to fill out the form. 

Those in the commercial sector should take note of this lesson in bureaucratic compliance. Regardless of what you’ve applied for in the past, if you have any interest in getting involved with UAS, start lining up people now who can advise and assist you with the application process. As important as this application could be to your company’s success, it doesn’t make sense to think, “Let me just take a whack at it and see what happens.”

You should also begin learning more about the technology and developing your strategy. What do you want to accomplish? How will the capabilities of this new method of collecting data improve the set (or quality) of data deliverables you can provide? Are there new markets you can address? Think of all the markets that have never even considered airborne measurement because it was beyond the realm of possibility. Of course, your best markets are always your existing clients; how can you improve or add to what you already deliver to them?

The rumor is that the FAA will publish the proposed rules in a month or two. The agency will then accept public comments for 60 days. After that, the FAA will “go dark” on the subject for a long time as officials figure out how to integrate the comments into the final rules, which will probably be punished—er, published—in May 2014.

Until then, don’t just sit idly on the sidelines. Learn and prepare for the coming changes, and play an active role in the process whenever possible. How you plan over the next two years could make all the difference in how successful you will be when the first commercial UAS take flight.

Photo: The Gatewing X100