Big business in small drones? Beach companies think so

The commercial drone industry, loaded with promise and who-knows-how-many applications, is making noise in Virginia Beach.

It sounds something like the whirring buzz that started down the hallway from Sean Cushing, a retired Naval combat aviator who races jets for fun, as he talked about his 15-month-old company last week in his office at Birdneck Business Center.

Cushing, president and co-founder of HAZON Solutions LLC, was not inclined to confirm for a reporter what his employees were up to. He noted, however, that it is completely legal to fly a small drone indoors.

“You can do anything you want inside the building,” he said.

Outside is another matter. There’s a whole convoluted world of rules out there, and Cushing and like-minded entrepreneurs at other local businesses are trying to navigate it.

A drone from Virginia Beach-based HAZON Solutions. (Courtesy of HAZON Solutions)
A drone from Virginia Beach-based HAZON Solutions. (Courtesy of HAZON Solutions)

At least four companies with headquarters or offices in Virginia Beach have applied for or received permission to commercially operate small, remotely controlled aerial vehicles without having to hew to certain regulations imposed on manned aircraft. The Federal Aviation Administration had granted 1,742 of the waivers – known as Section 333 exemptions – as of Sept. 30, according to the agency’s website.

The paperwork gives businesses freedom from regulations that sound absurd when they are applied to flying machines about the size of a toaster (the FAA definition of a “small” drone is less than 55 pounds). For example, Cushing said, manned aircraft must keep an operations manual on board and display numbers that are at least a foot tall.

HAZON markets a host of services, from infrastructure inspection and insurance assessment to aerial imagery and precision agriculture. For the past year it has been testing drones with Dominion Virginia Power to inspect transmission lines. Cushing said they were on call for the power company this past weekend because of Hurricane Joaquin.

Another Beach-based company that has received an exemption, AirSight Global, advertises itself as a provider of risk management, consulting and training services. Scott Toppel, a company partner, said they’re working on building a course where operators can come and train.

Potential business uses are only starting to be understood, and Toppel said he hopes Virginia Beach and the region can stake a claim as a center of innovation in the industry. One of the challenges is to counter the apprehension and negative publicity associated with drones, he said.

“There are a lot of effective and safe and productive uses for unmanned systems,” he said.

The region’s fledgling small drone businesses are infused with the area’s deep military ties. On AirSight Global’s website, Toppel and two other partners list the call signs they used as Navy pilots (Skweez, Crunchy and Stash). HAZON’s other co-founder is ret. Capt. David Culler, previously the commanding officer of Norfolk Naval Station.

The FAA has also granted a Section 333 exemption to Beach-based R&M Aerial Imagery; the company says on its website that it provides “high resolution drone photography.” Hourigan Construction Corp., with offices in Virginia Beach and Richmond, applied for an exemption this summer.

Yet another company has reached out to the city of Virginia Beach to explore how it might use drones.

Larry Raithel, chief development officer for Newport News-based DividedSky Aerial Solutions, said his company is meeting with public works staff today to discuss possibilities. Raithel, a retired Naval flight officer, said his company called the city to arrange the meeting.

Even with the 333 exemptions, small drones are still highly restricted by where they can operate commercially, Cushing said. For instance, an operator cannot fly one within 500 feet of a person without that person’s consent, he said. That effectively prohibits the commercial use of drones in populated areas such as a neighborhood or city – though those same rules do not apply to hobbyists, he said.

“It’s very challenging,” Cushing said. “We’re trying to educate the FAA. We could operate safely within 50 feet of people.”

They can, he said, because small drones are built for the stability that high-quality photos require. Such steady flight, especially in the hands of a skilled pilot, leads to a harsh truth for a retired combat pilot working in this high-tech, futuristic industry:

“What we do is really boring,” Cushing said.

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