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Hundreds of civilian drone pilots are signing up to fly emergency service missions

It's not clear if this is legal, or if emergency service workers actually want their help

The number of commercial drone operators in the US has soared over the last year. Since we published data on the first 500 operators last June, the number of for-profit drone pilots has grown to nearly 4000. And no category of use has grown faster than emergency services. According to a new report from the Center for Study of the Drone at Bard College, the volume of emergency service applications has increased more than six fold, appearing on 19 percent of exemptions during the last three months of 2015.

At the same time, drones and emergency responders have an uneasy relationship. Drones reportedly interfered with firefighters battling blazes in California, prompting local lawmakers to draft a ban which was eventually vetoed by the Governor. The FAA also grounded Gene Robinson, a volunteer drone pilot eager to assist with search and rescue missions. He resumed operations after a federal appeals court overturned the FAA’s ban.

This back and forth highlights the complex and often contradictory nature of drone regulation today. Hundreds of drone pilots with no direct connection to local police, fire, or medical agencies have now been granted permission by the FAA to pursue emergency services missions with their drones, and to charge for that work. And yet it’s not clear if anyone, including the FAA, thinks that these exemptions should authorize civilian pilots to actually fly alongside the trained experts in life or death situations.

According to an FAA spokeswoman "a civilian must have a 333 exemption" to participate in emergency services. At the same time the FAA told The Verge that "it turns out that the ‘emergency services’ mention is what the applicant lists. It does not mean that’s what is authorized. They typically list everything they may do." In essence the FAA is saying that pilots have the agency’s permission, but that there might be other rules and regulations preventing them from participating in this kind of mission. It's a nuance that may be lost on many who sought and seemingly were approved to fly emergency service missions.

"Lost dog is something I’ve helped with."Jay Puckett of Oklahoma is a pilot with a startup named Drone Fleet that offers aerial services. He told The Verge he has put his emergency services exemption to use, although he hasn’t made a business out of it. "Lost dog is something I’ve helped with. Someone goes missing on a mountain, instead of sending a helicopter just send a little drone with a thermal camera." But Puckett is aware that professional emergency responders are not too keen on having his help. "There is definitely pushback. When there was a fire I would always want to go and capture footage, help in that way, but they don’t want that at all."

As a former Life Flight helicopter pilot, Skyward CEO Jonathan Evans has lots of experience flying aircraft in emergency situations. "Unless a drone pilot is working for or in conjunction with emergency responders, there's not a lot of value that 'freelancers' can provide in an emergency situation," Evans said. "In fact, in the case of many emergencies, such as forest fires, the FAA will issue a temporary flight restriction to keep all aircraft away from the area. It's essential for this new generation of professional aviator to understand these kinds of airspace requirements."

The rise of emergency service exemptions may be at odds with the FAA’s own aims for national regulation of small drones.The FAA has urged states not to implement local laws restricting drone use, arguing that this might create a patchwork of contradictory and confusing rules that could stifle innovation. But many states are pushing ahead with limits on where drones can fly and what they can carry, potentially crippling the budding industry the FAA is trying to foster. As the conflict over drones at California wildfires showed, civilians flying close to critical situations is exactly the kind of thing that motivates local legislators to act.

"Regulations, for small drones, shouldn’t look at all to the purpose of the operations."

DJI and other tech companies like Amazon and Google have been pushing for regulations based on performance and safety standards. And it appears they may soon be getting their way. The most recent call for a task force recommendation by the FAA was the first to explicitly shift to the language of a flexible regulatory framework the focuses on potential hazards instead of potential use cases.

Brendan Schulman, the head of policy at the world’s largest consumer drone company, DJI, says that the growth of exemptions for uses the operators have little or no intention of performing highlights the absurdity of the current regulatory regime. "We think the regulations, for small drones, shouldn’t look at all to the purpose of the operations," he told The Verge. "There should be certain limits on speed, weight, and altitude, for example, but beyond that people should be free to use the technology as they see fit."

The Verge reached out to several dozen drone pilots who had been granted an exemption to fly emergency service missions. Interestingly, many of them seemed dismissive of the idea that they would ever actually make good on that permission. "When I made my Section 333 exemption application I patterned it after an application that had been approved, as the FAA suggests. The language in the application was very broad, and included emergency services, land surveying and several other broad categories," said David Spivey, a real estate agent from Foley, Alabama. "The way I interpreted the language it would be that I might fly missions for these entities at their request and with payment for the services. I did not anticipate flying any such missions, as my purchase of the UAS was to take videos of some of my own real estate listings."

Applicants are listing every use case imaginable

The increase in exemptions for emergency services, in other words, may simply be the result of a copycat culture that has developed around the application process. "Often it’s companies that have just copy and pasted that exact same language over and over and over again between exemptions," said Arthur Holland Michel, co-director at Center for Study of the Drone. "There’s almost no cases in which emergency services is either the only category or where it’s the first category that's listed. It’s usually list as an add-on at the end."

Along with the rise in applications listing emergency services, the Center’s report found a broad rise in the number of overall use cases listed, leading to a growing number of fairly absurd applications from small business owners petitioning the FAA. "At this point it’s about one in five exemptions the petitioner has requested permission to do four or more things according to our categories. So that’s four or more things that are completely different," says Holland Michel. "It’s super common now for companies to say we’re going to do real estate, agriculture, insurance, utilities, and infrastructure inspections, disaster response, and event photography."