Aerial Opportunists

The commercial drone industry is lifting off in the Panhandle

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Courtland William Richards

Chris Tonn, Pelican Drones, and others say drone usage may expand into rescue services and border patrol.

They seem to be everywhere, and they’re here to stay. Unmanned aerial systems — also known popularly as “drones” — can be spotted hovering over beaches, local landmarks, special outdoor events, industrial sites and real estate. These remotely piloted aircraft carry high-tech video gear and stabilizing gimbals that allow their users — and their clients — to see the world from a different perspective.

Over the past few years, drones have evolved from a curious, innovative hobby to a serious industrial tool with plenty of growth and potential. According to, the number of drone permits issued by the Federal Aviation Administration dramatically increased in just two years: In 2014, there were just two; in 2016, there were 3,100. Drone operators, sensing the need for professionalism and accountability, are working hard to increase their viability in a competitive market.

“People loved the idea of drones for construction project shots, parking lot studies, traffic light studies, on and on; but if you don’t have the licensing and insurance and professionalism, those opportunities aren’t obtainable,” said Chris Tonn, CEO of Pelican Drones in Pensacola. His company is FAA-licensed and carries aviation insurance as well as commercial automobile insurance. Pelican started two years ago and has since broadened its coverage area to include New Orleans, Tallahassee and all points in between. Pelican provides aerial photography and videography, ground-based videography, professional editing, industrial inspection, damage assessment, hazardous materials inspections and more.

“We stay busy traveling,” Tonn said. “It’s exciting to see where we’ll go. We’ve ‘chased’ multimillion-dollar yachts and have documented a 93-year-old tree farmer. It’s unique to have a lot of opportunities, especially in the tourism industry, to really show the area from a new perspective. We’ve done a lot of fun ones, from engineering firms to construction firms to ship builders. You name it, there’s a wide spectrum beyond just real estate.”

Using drones for such commercial purposes got easier and more streamlined with new rules published last summer by the FAA.

Before the “Small UAS Rule” was put in place last year, commercial drone operators had to apply for a special FAA exemption called a 333 Exemption, which took months to acquire. The exemption also required the drone operator to employ a pilot with a manned aircraft license from the FAA, according to DJI, a major drone manufacturer. Meeting those requirements was a source of frustration for companies wanting to make the most of this technology, a DJI spokesman said.

“We’ve chased multimillion-dollar yachts and documented a 93-year-old tree farmer. (We) have a lot of opportunities to show our area from a new perspective.”
— Chris Tonn, CEO, Pelican Drones

“The new rules codify common sense, making it easier for a farmer to fly a drone over his fields, for a contractor to inspect property without climbing a ladder and for a rescue service to use drones to save lives,” said Jon Resnick, DJI policy lead. “The FAA recognized that the system needed to change and worked closely with its industry partners to build a better system. We look forward to continued collaboration with them in the future.”

The Small UAS Rule, technically called Part 107 of the Title 14 Code of Federal Regulations, defines safety and security requirements for pilots and aircraft. Pilots must be at least 16 years old, must pass an aeronautical test at an FAA-approved testing center and must be vetted by the Transportation Security Administration. The drones themselves must be registered with the FAA, must weigh less than 55 pounds and are restricted to an altitude of 400 feet. They can’t travel faster than 100 miles an hour and can only be used in daylight hours. The new rule allows operators the freedom to work in uncontrolled airspace at or below 400 feet without requiring permission from air traffic control. If the operator intends to work within a controlled airspace, the rule supposedly makes it simpler to get permission via an online portal.

Tonn said that last part sounds great in theory, but it’s not exactly working out that way. At least, not yet.

“It’s very time-consuming because we have exceeded the FAA expectations,” he said. “There are 15,000 or more guys requesting flights. It’s a strain. Now the FAA says it takes up to 90 days for 
approval, so it’s not business-friendly, yet. But we can get some blanket coverage for low-altitude ops in certain areas.”

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