Menlo Park a hot spot for commercial drones

Kespry Drones Menlo Park

This post originally appeared on http://www.mercurynews.com/peninsula/ci_29969098/menlo-park-hot-spot-commercial-drones.

[Editor’s Note: Menlo Park saw 176 commercial registrations between December and May 12th.]

MENLO PARK — Menlo Park, a hub for venture capital and biotechnology firms, can add the drone industry to its roster.

The city late last month was named the nation’s top spot for commercial drone registrations after the Federal Aviation Administration released data in the wake of a new registration rule that went into effect Feb. 19. Operators, whether hobbyist or commercial, must now register their drones for $5 before using them or face fines up to $27,500.

Menlo Park saw 176 commercial registrations from the time applications became available in December through May 12. The No. 2 spot, at 138, went to Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Ala., followed by Los Angeles (83); San Diego (61); and Austin, Texas (59).

Menlo Park is home to at least a handful of commercial drone companies, including Facebook-owned firm Ascenta.

According to Kespry, a drone company in the Belle Haven neighborhood, the registration process is a welcome change, though Kespry is much more excited about a pending FAA rule that would make the process less complicated. That rule, which could be ratified later this month, would for the first time classify commercial drones as separate from piloted aircraft.

“The new rule is fantastic for the company and the commercial industry overall,” said Gabe Dobbs, Kespry’s director of business development and policy. “Rarely do you find an industry crying out for regulation.”

All drones must operate below 400 feet and the new rules only apply to drones weighing between 0.55 pounds and 55 pounds.

Kespry manufactures drones designed to operate in harsh conditions that it leases or sells to the construction, mining and survey industries to monitor work sites. Many of Kespry’s drones are leased to outside firms, meaning they count as a Menlo Park registration, but are never operated locally.

Dobbs said that without the pending rule, many companies looking to test drones operate in a “gray zone,” filing for exemptions to operate drones in commercial airspace without a pilot license, a process that can take months. The new rule would allow for their operation after users pass a written aeronautical knowledge test initially and then once every two years, as well as passing a background check with the Transportation Security Administration.

“We’re very excited about that,” Dobbs said.

What constitutes a commercial drone is another matter, one that Dobbs said remains confusing. For instance, Jayson Hanes, a Tampa, Fla., hobbyist who regularly uploaded drone videos to YouTube, received a cease and desist letter from the FAA in March, because the website houses paid advertisements in its videos. Even though Hanes said he received none of that money, the FAA dubbed his quadcopter a commercial drone because there was money involved.

“The FAA has pushed the limits … of what they think commercial drones are,” Dobbs said, adding that no courts have ever reviewed an FAA penalty. “FAA has really only gone after people operating in restricted airspace.”

Added Troy Mestler, CEO of Menlo Park-based drone firm Skyfront, “The main problem is not regulation so much as it’s a lack of clarity surrounding the registration process.”

Mestler called the current necessity for licensed pilots to operate commercial drones “ridiculous,” and said it was a remnant from two years ago when the technology was younger and “drones would lose connectivity with the pilot and fly away.”

Skyfront has developed Tailwind, a hybrid gas-electric drone that also is used in work site surveys and can fly for more than four hours, roughly 10 times more than typical.

“We’re building in redundancy in the communication link and the aircraft itself … to make sure (crashes) never happen,” Mestler said. “That’s a problem we solved.”

Mestler and Dobbs agreed that Menlo Park is a drone-development hot spot because of the infusion of venture capital and engineering talent coming out of Stanford and UC-Berkeley.

“I think the concentration of venture capital is why a lot of commercial drone operations have gotten their start here … and Silicon Valley often provides leadership and technology,” Dobbs said.

Mestler said drone companies tend to flock together to share research and build partnerships, though he wouldn’t share specifics.

“This is the place to be if you want to run a drone company,” Mestler said.

Menlo Park didn’t crack the top 10 for registered hobby drones. The No. 1 spot went to Houston with 3,061 drones, followed by San Diego (2,445) and Austin (2,111). San Jose is the nearest city at No. 7 with 1,955 registered crafts.

Email Kevin Kelly at kkelly@bayareanewsgroup.com or call him at 650-391-1049.

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