Photo courtesy Pittsburgh Drone Masters.

If you are one of the roughly 500,000 individuals who purchased a drone over the holidays, the steps to legal recreational flying are straightforward: if the drone weighs between .55 and 55 pounds, and you are over 13 years old, go online to the FAA website, pay $5, and write or place your new registration number somewhere on the drone.

For commercial use, it is not as simple.

A commercial entity must apply for an FAA exemption, a months-long process that falls under Section 333 of the Modernization and Reform Act of 2012. The person actually piloting the drone must have at least a recreational or sports pilot’s license, and a specific commercial use (e.g. agriculture, or land surveying) must be specified on the application.

Sound confusing? Micah Rosa thinks so, but it’s still better than nothing. Rosa is founder and organizer of Pittsburgh Drone Masters, a 200-member strong Pittsburgh collective of drone fliers that began in 2012.

Many of the members initially viewed the new unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) technology as a fun hobby but they were also aware of the vast commercial potential, from filming movies and news footage, to aiding crop rotation, tracking animal migration and more.

They wanted a piece of the pie but a clear path to legal commercial drone operation simply didn’t exist. That was until February 2015 when the FAA began to allow 333 exemptions.

“If you don’t have a 333,” he says, “and you accept payment for doing something under the table, you’re a hobbyist breaking the law. Don’t. We’re up with the rules, we know the regulations. It’s not the Wild West anymore.”

Since the change, the group has begun to transition from being a simple flight club to serving as an outlet for UAV advocacy and awareness.

To that end, Drone Masters partnered with Justine Kasznica, Special Counsel at law firm Saul Ewing, for a seminar at East Liberty startup accelerator AlphaLab Gear, at 6 p.m. on Thursday, January 28th. Ms. Kasznica will speak on the current state of UAV law, with special focus given to commercial drone laws.

“There are a number of potential commercial flyers who don’t know exactly what they need to do to be fully compliant,” she says.

A corporate lawyer (and recreational drone pilot), Kasznica specializes in emerging robotics companies and often serves as general counsel to tech startups. She also assists entities in applying for their 333 exemption.

“The challenge,” she says “is that, even in today’s world, it’s murky because we are still waiting for the regulations to be promulgated and to have the force of law.”

The FAA proposed commercial usage rules in February of 2015, but after a temporary public notice and comment period, they still haven’t finalized or published the new rules. Kasznica says no one knows when the new rules will be released; it could be this year or next, at which point the entire process could change “on a dime.”

A screenshot of the FAA's B4UFLY app. Each circle represents prohibited airspace for drone operation.
A screenshot of the FAA’s B4UFLY app. Each circle represents restricted airspace for drone operation.
A screenshot of the FAA’s B4UFLY app. Each circle represents restricted airspace for drone operation.

In the meantime, over 3,100 petitions for 333 exemptions have been granted by the FAA, allowing for commercial drone use in a somewhat limited (albeit legal) capacity.

For example, commercial drone pilots cannot operate within a 5-mile radius of an airport or helipad (the same is true for recreational drone pilots). The FAA released an app, “B4UFLY,” that drone operators can consult to determine if they are within that range, but most drone users already know that the answer inside an urban environment like Pittsburgh is “yes” several times over. To comply with the rule, the drone pilot must contact each nearby airport or helipad within that 5-mile radius to request permission to operate their drone.

Rosa hopes that as the number of commercial drone operators and their employers increase, so too will the lobbying power of groups like the Drone Masters to petition to change what they view as overburdensome regulations.

“It’s tough to legally fly around here; that’s why you don’t see a lot of it. So now that we have a way to be commercial, we have to make that more practical.”

Ultimately, any final rules from the FAA will have to consider both the benefits of UAV use and whatever inherent risks they may possess.

“I look at drones as an absolute game-changer in terms of a new industry,” says Kasznica, “but it has to be tempered with an attention to safety and reliability and safe operations.”

Brian Conway is a writer and photographer whose articles have appeared in the Chicago Tribune and local publications. In his free time, he operates Tripsburgh. Brian lives in the South Side.