FAA Grants First Vt. Commercial Drone Permit To Burlington Startup

May 29, 2015

A Burlington company that develops software and hardware for unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, is the first company in Vermont to get a federal permit allowing the use of drones for commercial purposes.

AirShark, a startup based in Burlington’s Generator maker space, received the state’s first Section 333 exemption permit from the Federal Aviation Administration. Current regulations prohibit the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for commercial use, but AirShark’s Jon Burdreski said there are several potential uses for the technology.

“Our main focus area is commercial and industrial,” he said. “Energy plants like solar and wind systems that are difficult to access or are large areas, for instance, that need to be checked is a great example. And then there’s construction projects that need constant documentation, whether it’s a bridge project or a large commercial building that’s going up that needs to be managed from a building information standpoint, so those are the sort of low-hanging fruits that we’re looking at: energy, transportation and construction.”

The FAA has been slow to develop regulations for the use of UAVs. A 2012 law required the FAA to have drones fully integrated into U.S. airspace by the end of September of this year. Citing privacy concerns, the FAA delayed some of the initial steps in that process but has recently started to take more steps to integrate unmanned flight and manned aircraft.

“The FAA was slow, but they came up with the process over the last year or so, and especially the last six months, to ramp up the commercialization of small unmanned systems,” Budreski said. “Because there is a huge economic benefit in terms of driving businesses that are investing in hardware and software developments, but also for entities like utilities that want to incorporate drones into their everyday work.”

He said the registration process is “much like a small aircraft,” and the company has registered a drone and a licensed pilot on staff and is only allowed to operate the aircraft within the pilot’s line of sight.

“So you’re not, you know, going out 10 miles to do a search and rescue yet under this exemption for commercial use, but it’s fairly practical and straightforward although it’s a little bit of a rigorous process to go through,” Budreski said.

Another goal of the company, he said, is to develop software and hardware for commercial UAV use.

“It’s easy to go on Amazon and purchase a drone and put a GoPro on it as a consumer and get some great videos for a thousand dollars,” he said. “But if you want to be professional and get actionable data and meaningful information at the end of the day – and it may be over and over on a recurring basis – it’s pretty challenging, as you can imagine.”

Budreski compared the challenge to coming home from vacation with so many photos that it’s difficult to find a specific one; drones can generate so much data that it’s difficult for users to make sense of it afterwards. It’s a problem the U.S. military has struggled with as well since the proliferation of military UAVs.

Budreski said one of AirShark’s longer term goals, besides providing the commercial services the company just got a permit for, is to develop software that makes data generated by commercial and industrial drones easier for operators to use after it’s collected.

In the meantime, Budreski said the company will use its new permit to provide services with their own equipment for commercial and industrial projects that could benefit from the technology.