Traverse City Record-Eagle

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) _ Getting behind the figurative wheel of a drone was no challenge for Chris Houseman.

“Literally you unbox it, charge the battery and you’re ready to fly,” he said.

Houseman, a self-described “tech and gadget guru,” bought his first drone for less than $400 last spring. He’s since upgraded with new, improved models and is working to launch a business that will fund his hobby, the Traverse City Record-Eagle ( ) reported.

Houseman, a Munson employee, hopes to start a photography service that would allow customers to hire him to take aerial photos of their properties or other favored scenes.

But starting a drone-based business isn’t simple. Entrepreneurs have to file for an exemption from the Federal Aviation Administration in order to legally operate commercial drones. The FAA has granted fewer than 700 exemptions since September.

Use of drones, also called Unmanned Aircraft Systems, is restricted for hobbyists and commercial users. Hobbyists can’t fly drones higher than 400 feet or photograph people or property without permission. They have to keep drones within eyesight, avoid flying over crowds and avoid airports and other flying objects.

Aetos Group, a local company started by a group of people with Northwestern Michigan College ties, uses drones to inspect infrastructure for petrochemical companies. The technology means companies put fewer people on scaffolding to perform inspections. That boosts worker safety and reduces cost.

Aetos received its FAA exemption in March. That allowed it to actually put drones in the air and start inspections. The company worked in research and development activities and as a consultant before it received the exemption.

Aaron Cook, Aetos president, was director of NMC’s aviation program until he left the post in April. He said the company works closely with the college, sharing ideas, experience and equipment.

“When we started this program at the college we also started the company,” Cook said. “We said `this is an opportunity for graduates, this is an opportunity for a company to be able to feed information back to the college to make sure the education is relevant in the industry.”’

Cook said FAA exemptions are hard to get. The administration typically requires drone operators to have pilot’s license. He said UAV pilot certificates could replace that requirement in the future.

Greg MacMaster, a former state representative, received an exemption in May for his Traverse City business Eagle-Eye Drone Service. MacMaster has a pilot’s license. Eagle-Eye takes aerial video and photography for clients to use in commercial and promotional material.

The business has taken flight. Eagle-Eye has already worked on more than 150 projects, most of them for real estate agents marketing properties. MacMaster expects business to continue growing in other sectors, including agriculture, but real estate still fuels the business.

“The key to the success is going to be how well the videos are embraced, not just by the listing agents but by the buyers,” he said.

The future of drone-based industry will be influenced by FAA rules. MacMaster said the administration’s current rules leave room for interpretation on a case-by-case basis.

Houseman expects to see more consumers purchasing drones. Companies such as Go Pro say they are developing their own models. But Houseman said FAA regulations could cap entrepreneurs’ innovation in the fledgling industry.

He hopes the business he envisions, which he has yet to name, can be part of that industry.

“The sky’s the limit,” Houseman said.