Last week, the Federal Aviation Administration issued its first approval to an Alaska company for the commercial use of drones.
Alaska Aerial Media has been posting videos shot by drones online for about a year. Snippets of aerial footage featuring sledding at a local high school, a construction project and an ice skating event offer glimpses of the company's future endeavors.
Founder Ryan Marlow said his interest in drones -- or "systems," short for unmanned aircraft systems -- started as a hobby. His personal fascination quickly turned into a business idea, but current laws limited his use of drones to recreational pursuits.
Section 333 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 lifted the prohibition on the use of drones for commercial or business purposes -- provided a company hoping to operate drones was granted a license to do so. Now, the aviation authority is handing out exemptions faster than ever. There were 150 approvals nationwide in April, with a total of 246 granted as of Thursday.
Exemptions are being issued on a case-by-case basis prior to the FAA finalizing new rules for drones. The comment period for the proposed "small drone rule" closed on April 24. Implementing those rules could take two years.
Alaska Aerial Media's exemption allows Marlow and his start-up legal entry into the national airspace system, or NAS, as well as a competitive advantage in the emerging marketplace.
In the company's application for exemption, posted online, it describes its mission as "Aerial videography and cinematography to enhance academic community awareness for those individuals and companies unfamiliar with the geographical layout of the Anchorage area, and pursue implementation of emergency use UAS systems with public entities."
That mission was on full display Thursday at Goldenview Middle School in South Anchorage. Two students flew a dual-operator DJI Inspire 1 around outside the school to film a lip-sync music video. The system was shut down and carried while inside the school.
Co-owner Beau Bivins watched video of the flight as the young hobbyists operated the drone. Students poured out the back doors of the middle school and lined up to form the letters GVMS as the drone hovered overhead.
The drone company was volunteering its time, so Thursday's flight wasn't considered a commercial operation. As soon as money is involved, a long list of rules comes into play.
In the past year, Marlow has been exploring relationships with public safety entities in hopes of using his drones to assist in investigations, or to access hard-to-reach places. But those aspirations were put on hold when the FAA told him he needed an exemption before anyone could hire him.
"There are so many uses for the UAV systems, especially during natural-disaster situations," Marlow said. "That's one of our main goals, to be able to assist in search and rescue and wildfire management."
Marlow said he hopes to sell drones equipped with high-resolution thermal cameras. The company could sell units, offer training and provide 24-hour support to customers, he said.
On Tuesday, Marlow got the OK, and now he hopes his business will take off.
"The exemption will allow us to use our systems for special events like Iditarod, or news events. If there's a breaking story, for example a bad accident, it could be used for that," Marlow said.
In addition to public safety uses, the list of services Marlow envisions providing also includes filming events, like weddings, concerts and parties. He can also convert hundreds of images taken during a flight to produce 3D maps.
Drones, it appears, will inevitably become a tool for the public safety sector. Local officials said they are interested in drones but far from ready to use them.
The Anchorage Police Department has discussed the use of drones, said spokesperson Renee Oistad. She said the department would benefit from their use in certain situations, but "it's also the department's responsibility to look at the issue from all sides.
"Obviously, the public would raise some questions in regards to the right of privacy, search-and-seizure laws, etc. (and rightfully so) that would need to be addressed," Oistad said in an email, adding the implementation of drones would require new policies, procedures and laws. "If using drones does ever happen -- it will be in the very distant future," she said.
Jim Vignola, deputy chief of operations at the Anchorage Fire Department, said there is interest in drones among department members but "nothing has been adopted or embraced."
While Anchorage police and firefighters ponder the use of drones, others have already embraced the technology.
Before the FAA established the exemption process, public entities like the University of Alaska Fairbanks were among the few to fly drones.
The university has about four dozen certificates of waiver or authorization, said Ro Bailey, associate director of the university's Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration. The certificates allow the university, a public operator, to fly drones for specific activities.
UAF has been flying them routinely since 2006, Bailey said, assessing various drone capabilities.
The drone program is looking at the newer exemption for certain applications, but it would not compete with private industries, Bailey said.
After Thursday's flight at Goldenview, Marlow said he and his partners learn something new about drone regulations every day. As drones become more commonplace, he hopes the public will eventually accept the systems as a tool, not trouble.