COLLEGE PARK — Cell towers in Maryland need constant service, but a newer technology could save companies money: drones.
The new industry creates opportunities for faster, safer inspections, according to Shaun Capps, owner of Top Flight Digital Media LLC, a Frederick company that conducts cell tower and bridge inspections, mapping services, photography and cinematography.
“One of the things I really thought of was safety,” Capps said. “I am former Navy, and we haven’t done some of the safest things known to man. When I was in, one of the things was that it has to be a safer and better way of doing things. And I kind of wanted to keep that in the back of my mind whenever I am doing anything.”
The industry is booming, Capps said, but Federal Aviation Administration regulations have created backlogs in commercial licensing, a mandatory process for companies to use drones.
Capps received his registration, called a 333 exemption, within three months of his application. Now, the wait exceeds eight months, he said.
James Sean Humbert, associate professor in the mechanical engineering department at the University of Colorado Boulder, said the FAA is currently looking into ways to track all drones for safety reasons. However, the payload limit of drones does not allow them to carry tracking equipment like other aircraft do.
“There has been limited commercial and research permission given by the FAA, but there isn’t a blanket way to do this,” Humbert said. “I think people are anticipating the FAA will figure this out at some point. So there is a lot of money getting invested in the development of technology of drones.”
High demand for aerial drone inspections create profitable businesses and save companies both time and money, according to Capps.
The income for tower inspectors in Maryland is one of the highest in the nation, with an hourly mean wage of more than $28, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This equates to larger costs for companies.
Although drones are expensive (prices range between $2,000 and $40,000), newer technology will eventually reduce costs, Capps said.
“As technology progresses, it will become more cost effective,” Capps said. “Pretty soon we will start seeing these cell tower companies and agricultural companies buy their own equipment and doing the work themselves. Until that point, there will still be a need for guys like me.”
Until then, Capps said he will continue to improve his business, eventually moving toward data processing.
“It’s estimated by the end of next year, the drone industry will be a $13.8 billion-a-year industry,” Capps said. “It will supply 200,000 jobs in the first year alone once the FAA opens their roles. There will still be a lot of hurdles.”
One of these hurdles in the Maryland area is the no-fly zone, a 15-mile radius that covers most of the District of Columbia region, including northern Virginia.
This means Capps cannot service cell towers in the area without obtaining a waiver from the FAA, called a certificate of authorization.
Although safety is key for government officials, recreational users still have the ability to fly drones without any regulation, according to Capps.
“It has to be a completely different system, and they don’t have the technology available for the smaller drones to integrate into what’s called the national airspace, or NAS,” Humbert said. “So the legal issues from all of that are getting hammered out right now.”
Drone registration for recreational use is expected to start next year.
“Efficiency is first, but safety is paramount,” Capps said. “That is what it spawned into.”