Last week I reported on a Craigslist ad seeking to hire drone pilots in Philadelphia – not, it turns out, a novel or underground phenomenon. Amazon has begun advertising for pilots on Washington, DC’s Craigslist, for its unmanned delivery service. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have made several appearances in the Philadelphia skies and press. Dronecast, a drone advertising company that launched earlier this year in Philly, confirmed to us via twitter that the Craigslist ad was not theirs. I emailed the poster via the Craigslist email, telling him I was a reporter interested in knowing more about his plans.
Thursday I received a voice-mail from Chris Earley, a property inspection professional, who said he was at a conference in Atlanta, with poor cell phone reception. Earley said in his message that he is looking to expand his business by using drones for industrial inspections. We’ll have an update from Earley when he gets back to town.
Perhaps because of the absence of local regulation, the city seems to have become a sort of hub for UAV enthusiasts and entrepreneurs. In 2012 a Drexel researcher sought to establish an unmanned aerial systems center to explore the “significant opportunities…in civil and commercial applications ranging from infrastructure inspection and border patrol to law enforcement and disaster recovery.” Anyone can fly a UAV in Philly as a hobbyist, but the FAA says that any operation for commercial purposes requires a license and FAA clearance.
Quite a few companies providing a variety of unmanned-aerial services, from surveillance and security to mapping and agricultural applications already operate in Pennsylvania. I found Mr. Earley on Drone Hire (www.dronehire.org) “an international directory of civilian drone operators,” which lists 15 options for drone-bound services in the Commonwealth.
I also found Harmony Drones on Dronehire, which operates in several other states in the region, and has provided aerial footage for marketing Philadelphia real estate.
UAVs are already employed by multiple agencies throughout the state, both civilian and military. According to Nick Malawskey, PennDOT employs UAV’s to monitor roads for maintenance. In August of last year Malawskey reported that “the state police has repeatedly denied, to PennLive and other news organizations, that it uses drones, and has said it has no plans to do so in the near future. When asked whether it has, or is, using drones, the Attorney General’s Office declined to comment.”
The Pennsylvania National Guard trains with drones for surveillance and intelligence-gathering, and possibly for counter-drug operations.
Philadelphia City Council is considering legislation to limit drone use in the city, but the proposed bill would not necessarily prevent any of the present start-ups from opening and growing their businesses in Philly as planned. Some aspects of the legislation are vague, especially as concerns the section on police department use of the technology. The regulations would constrain commercial operations essentially to the licit domain of the computer network penetration tester who can deploy her sophisticated tools on her own property – that is, her website or network – or the property of someone who has given her explicit consent.