Texas A&M University System unveiled a new national certification program for operators of unmanned aerial vehicles on Wednesday, aiming to fill a regulatory void as the federal government slowly adopts new regulations for drones.
The program offers rigorous paperwork checks and flying tests, ensuring that commercial drone companies are adhering to newly-developed federal requirements over drones.
The university discussed the details of its program at a drone conference held in Austin on Wednesday.
Two companies have already obtained a certificate through Texas A&M’s program, including Austin-based startup HUVRData, which uses drones to inspect wind farms.
Texas A&M officials argue that offering a certificate program is necessary because the Federal Aviation Administration license requirements lack rigor and enforcement.
But it’s also a potential moneymaking opportunity for the university and a chance to establish Texas – and Texas A&M University System in particular - as a leader in the drone industry.
The A&M stamp of approval is a way for the drone industry to be proactive about how it is regulated, especially in the early years when federal rules are still being hammered out.
"It's always better for the rules and regulations to be borne from the grassroots level than coming down on high," said Steve Williams, who helps oversee the program for the A&M system.
He said the certificate program amounts to checking whether a drone operator is really adhering to federal regulations, such as maintaining insurance, or is familiar with the various air space regulations.
“The air space is getting a lot more dense than it used to be,” Williams 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 by the Texas A&M's engineering extension office and its drone research center, which is housed at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi. That research center also has an FAA-certified “test site” that can be used to fly drones.
How it works
The certificate is designed for commercial drone operators or small drone service providers nationwide who already have a license to operate a drone 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.
The Texas A&M certificate is unique because it certifies an entire company, Williams said, rather than an individual pilot. “We’re not certifying a pilot or training a pilot,” he said. “We are credentialing the company as a whole.”
Williams declined to give precise figures for what it charges companies to obtain a certificate, but he did say to start it was “under $10,000” to complete the program.
The Texas A&M program includes checking insurance paperwork, verifying the existence of a training program, and offering an extensive oral exam and a flying test for pilots.
“We’re not looking for the hobbyist. We’re looking more for the businesses that are engaged in these type of operations and contracting with companies for services,” Williams said. These are often companies, such as HUVRData, that want to work with large, multinational corporations and want to show they take federal regulations and safety seriously.
‘It’s a wild market out there’
Several drone operators at the conference said they support the certificate program as a way to prove to potential clients that they are adhering to FAA regulations.
HUVRData CEO Bob Baughman said his possible clients include major publicly traded energy companies, such as Duke Energy. But those clients have no way of knowing whether Baughman’s company or a competitor is complying with FAA regulations.
“We have found multiple occasions where they awarded a contract to another service provider and that drone service provider was just not legal,” Baughman said.
An example of not complying with federal rules, he said, would include failing to file required flying notices. Commercial drone operators are supposed to alert the FAA when and where they plan on flying, Baughman said, noting that this rule doesn’t apply to hobbyists.
But “countless times,” Baughman said other companies have not adhered to this. While the Texas A&M program wouldn’t prevent this from happening, Baughman said it helps make sure other companies are aware of all the FAA rules and regulations.
Baughman said gaining certification will help his company stand out – although he said he wouldn’t mind if competitors also got certified. “I want a level playing field,” he said.
"It's a wild market out there," Baughman said. "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."
HUVRData was founded in 2014 and raised $2 million last year from angel investors. The company uses its fleet of drones to inspect wind farms, but is trying to launch into other industries, such as inspecting cell phone towards or solar farms.