Drones are on the wish lists of a lot of businesses and individuals these days, even though the Federal Aviation Administration has yet to issue rules for their operation.
A Fargo startup company sees opportunity in the confusion over drone regulations. Botlink aims to prove to the FAA that drones can reliably be integrated into the nation's airspace.
In a cramped office in downtown Fargo, a handful of software engineers and pilots are working on a project they hope will transform the growing small drone industry with an app that will make flying small drones safer.
CEO Shawn Muehler jumped headfirst into the drone business after hearing about near misses between small drones weighing about 5 pounds and commercial airliners.
"It's like, you can't just do that," said Muehler, an Air Force pilot. "You can't just take a drone, go flying and almost cause a mid-air collision with a manned aircraft."
But that has been happening. Reports from commercial pilots have publicized a handful of incidents where small drones came close to commercial aircraft and medical helicopters — especially during takeoff and landings.
Muehler wants to create software that allows drone pilots to fly safely even if they don't know standard flight rules.
"Imagine a system like Botlink installed on his tablet," Muehler said. "He knows what airspace is around him. He knows where the aircraft are coming and going to. He knows all the regulations and who controls the airspace. If he pops up in controlled airspace, he'll get a warning right away saying, 'Hey, this is Minneapolis-controlled airspace. You might want to contact them.'"
The company's app uses the GPS location of drones, and the electronic signatures of commercial aircraft to alert drone pilots to other aircraft in the area. It incorporates airspace maps and flight regulations.
The system could would only be successful if used widely. To encourage that, Muehler plans to give the app away and sell data collected by users to drone manufacturers.
Muehler and software designer Alex Kube started the company earlier this year. They now have seven employees. They planned to release the app this month, but are now holding off until early next year.
"You get one chance to get it right and if you don't, that's a very bad thing," Kube said. "Testing is definitely a huge part of this and planning so you make sure you're designing the correct system the first time."
The challenge, he said, is creating an app that is easy to use and incorporates drone regulations, manned aircraft regulations and airspace rules.
"It's at least three sets of regulations that you're dealing with," Kube said. "And then you talk about potentially trying to do this internationally and then you get into the same sort of thing with each individual country. So it gets to be a very complicated problem very quickly."
The company has received emails from across the United States and Europe asking when the app will be ready.
While Botlink is forging ahead despite the lack of clear drone rules from the FAA, many other entrepreneurs are holding back.
Terry Sando, senior manager for unmanned aircraft business development at the Grand Forks Regional Economic Development Authority, said many businesses planning to use drones but they are hesitant to make a commitment until the FAA allows them to fly in the national airspace system.
As a result, he said, "they are very careful about having any commercial applications right now."
Sando expects more of those companies to invest money after the FAA releases proposed rules for commercial use of drones.
Muehler is not worried about jumping the gun. He said so many people are already flying small drones, a safety software app is needed with or without FAA rules in place.
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