An Austin company, HUVRData, became one of the first in the nation to obtain an official certification to operate unmanned aerial vehicles - also known as drones. HUVRData uses drones to inspect wind farms.
The certification program, developed by Texas A&M University System, offers rigorous checks and flying tests, ensuring that companies are adhering to newly-developed federal requirements. The university announced it granted approval to HUVRData and another Texas company at a drone conference in Austin on Wednesday.
The program is necessary, the university says, because Federal Aviation Administration requirements are lax when it comes to ensuring that drone operators are actually adhering to federal rules and regulations.
The A&M credential involves checking required paperwork, offering an extensive oral exam and a flying test for pilots. Steve Williams, who helps oversee this program for A&M, said it costs "under $10,000" to obtain a credential.
Offering this stamp of approval is a way for the drone industry to be pro-active about how it is regulated, especially in the early years when federal rule are still being hammered out, Williams said. "It's always better for the rules and regulations to be borne from the grassroots level than coming down on high," he said.
In Texas, drones are being used particularly in the energy industry as a way to examine hard-to-reach areas.
The certificate program was developed jointly by the Texas A&M's engineering extension office and "Lone Star UAS," which is housed at Texas A&M University's Corpus Christi campus.
The credential is designed for commercial drone operators or small drone service providers nationwide who already have a license from the Federal Aviation Administration - known as the Section 333 exemption. Williams said there are over 4,200 people nationwide that have received this license.
Several drone operators at the summit said they support the credentialing program as a way to prove that they are adhering to FAA regulations to potential clients, and get a leg up on competitors.
"It's a wild market out there," said Bob Baughman, the CEO of Austin-based HUVRData. "People in the system are doing it illegally and these private companies have no idea. We believe firmly it is time in this industry for self-policing."