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HELENA - A small group of Helenans had the opportunity Thursday morning to watch unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, whiz around a grassy area of the Great Northern Town Center.

Big Sky UAV, the first and only company in Helena with the necessary exemption to lawfully operate a UAV for commercial purposes, put on a demonstration open to anyone.

Greg Heide, one of the company’s founders, said Big Sky UAV has been building its drone fleet and even constructing some aircraft since 2012, but couldn’t operate commercially until this June.

“It’s been a long process and a long learning curve because there are so many facets,” he said.

Heide and his partner in the company, J.D. “Pepper” Petersen, still haven’t started charging for any services yet, but they hope to before winter hits this year.

With only 10 companies in Montana that can legally operate commercial drones, Heide and Petersen know they’re on the leading edge of an industry and say they are doing everything possible to ensure the operation is above board.

For a commercial operation, a company must obtain an exemption that allows them to operate outside certain FAA regulations. To fly in town, within five miles of the Helena airport, Big Sky UAV had to obtain an additional certificate.

The exemption is good only for two years, and with the rapidly changing UAV business, the parameters could be entirely different by the time Big Sky applies again. Despite the tumultuous business environment, Heide said it was best to get in while on the leading edge.

“It’s one of those things where you step in hands and feet, because if you don’t, you won’t do it right,” Heide said.

Troy Meskimen, the FAA employee in Montana designated to oversee UAVs, said the 10 companies with commercial operating privileges have all received their exemptions since April. The boom reflects national growth. In late April, only about 200 companies in the United States had an exemption for commercial operation. Now there are more than 1,000.

All those exemptions are processed by FAA employees in Washington, D.C., and Meskimen said there is still a backlog of companies waiting to be approved, including some in Montana.

The companies with exemptions are spread across the state: two in Billings, two in Bozeman, one in Kalispell, one in Belgrade, one in Whitefish, one in Bigfork, one in Lambert and Big Sky UAV in Helena.

Meskimen said he gets about two or three complaints each week alleging people are illegally operating drones for commercial purposes or harassing people on the ground.

“We try to educate people; that’s our first goal,” Meskimen said. “There is a lot of misconception out there that people can just buy these off the shelf, fly these around and make money with them.”

Commercial drone pilots must have a pilot’s license, Meskimen said, because it provides knowledge about how airspace is used.

“They need to operate them responsibly and know what airspace they're operating in so they don’t tangle with manned aircraft,” he said.

Once Big Sky UAV starts operating as a commercial entity, Heide said, there are many possibilities for commercial projects. They could work with the Montana Department of Environmental Quality to obtain water samples in hard-to-reach places and take aerial photos of real estate, Heide said.

He said most of their business will come from people who need targeted aerial photos with a higher resolution than a satellite image. A drone can be programmed to take pictures along a grid that form a composite image. The whole process can be done and sent to a customer within a couple of hours, Heide said.

It’s exciting, Heide said, because there are so many undiscovered possibilities for drone use.

“This is a hobby that is turning into a business,” Heide said. “There’s a lot of people trying to make a go at it, they just need to make sure they have the rules right.”

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Alexander Deedy can be reached at 447-4081 or alexander.deedy@helenair.com

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