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Two Tennessee companies illustrate different paths to legal drone use

Commercial use of drones is currently banned under FAA regulations. There are other ways to fly legally, though.

Retired Lt. Gen. John Castellaw, founder and CEO of Farmspace Systems, a company based in Alamo, Tenn., that hopes to integrate unmanned aerial systems into precision agriculture, tells the Scene that Farmspace has partnered with MTSU to apply for a certificate of authorization — not for commercial use but to enable research that could potentially lead to commercial applications later on.

"This is an opportunity for MTSU to get research information for their use and for the use of those in this area that work with Middle Tennessee and can benefit from what they do," he says, adding that he hopes to hear something in the coming weeks so his company can begin operations.

Beyond Right Now Technologies, whose SkySecure system employs UAS to patrol fields from the sky and identify "warm-blooded incursions," has not applied for a certificate of authorization. Because they're not offering a commercial service — the SkySecure platform would be a direct sale, similar to off-the-shelf drones — co-founders Jake Gish and Casey York say what they're doing is legal.

But they would like to stack commercial services onto their platform eventually, so they're also applying for something known as a Section 333 exemption.

"Most of the Section 333 companies are movie producers in Hollywood," Gish says, "and the reason they were able to do it is because they're doing the no-nonsense things: They're flying it in rural settings, it's closed sets, and if it falls and breaks, who cares, it's fucking Hollywood, they're really fucking rich [laughs] ... We're going to try to be one of the first 20 companies to be starting the compliance to actually offer commercial services in addition to our commercial products, that will be a farm tool for farmers for use on their property."

Asked how the company is able to test its UAV prototypes without a certificate of authorization from the FAA, York responds, "We fly on private property right now."

Attorney James Mackler notes that "a strict reading of the regulation" suggests that a commercial entity test-flying aircraft for commercial purposes "would be included in the regulations, unless you've got a COA or you're flying at an FAA test site." He sees no distinction in the regulations between private or public land. His clients, which include Farmspace Systems, face similar challenges interpreting the law in order to operate legally.

Castellaw also says Farmspace agrees with the FAA's approach, and that anything that flies should be regulated strictly.

"We were able to be involved in the [Tennessee] legislative process that went on this past year, involving UAS, and what we want to see is proper use of the vehicles, and safety and privacy maintained."

Still, he doesn't think drones deserve the knee-jerk reaction they sometimes inspire. "I think sometimes people don't realize, this Blackberry I'm talking to you over right now can tell more about me than a UAS can," he says. "We need to keep this in perspective."

Patton Webb