PORTLAND – A new company that uses small flying drones to take aerial videos and photographs may be operating in violation of Federal Aviation Administration rules.

HoverFlow has sold some video images to clients, but under federal rules, drones can’t yet be used for commercial purposes, said Chris Trafford, the Portland company’s creative director and co-founder.

That may change by 2015, but for now the FAA says drone technology can be used only by hobbyists or emergency personnel, not businesses.

“If you’re flying an unmanned aircraft for fun or recreation, you’re a hobbyist. As soon as you use that aircraft for commercial purposes, the FAA says, ‘We regulate you’ and it’s not allowed yet,” said Ben Gielow, government relations manager and general counsel for the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.

When asked about HoverFlow, the FAA said it investigates any potential violations of regulations but would not say whether it would take enforcement action against the company.

The issue of drones — lightweight flying pods that carry cameras — capturing images has raised concerns about privacy, as well as safety risks, because drones can fly as high as a mile in the air.

HoverFlow said it keeps its remote-controlled drone below 400 feet.

Under FAA rules, HoverFlow cannot be anything more than a hobby for its founders, Trafford and Rob Mitchell, owner of HVAC Services in Westbrook.

But HoverFlow issued a press statement on Aug. 27 to announce the launch of a commercial venture.

“This is pretty new. In Colorado, the Pacific Northwest, these devices are more prevalent,” Trafford said in a recent interview while filming an aerial video of a Casco Bay Lines ferry. “This is the first commercial attempt in New England.”

Trafford said HoverFlow charges $1,000 for a roughly 10-minute flight, which includes setup, photographs and videos.

He said it would take about 20 jobs to break even on the partners’ $20,000 investment in the flying drone, camera and other equipment.

Trafford said HoverFlow sold video clips of the Amtrak Downeaster train for the Maine International Trade Center’s promotional video for Gov. Paul LePage’s current trade mission to China.

The company also provided an aerial photograph of a cruise ship for Portland magazine, he said.

The Maine International Trade Center confirmed that it used HoverFlow but did not return calls seeking comment on whether it paid the company. Portland magazine did not return calls.

Trafford said drones can be used to take aerial video for TV commercials, video showing real estate listings from above, video clips for news media, and even infrared photography to track animals for hunting.

“There’s a huge application for it,” Mitchell said.

In comparison to the cost of a drone, a helicopter can cost $10,000 for three hours of taking aerial videos, Trafford said.

Gielow said, “There are great potential uses for unmanned aircraft that are not feasible, possible or financially viable to do with a manned aircraft. But that market is theoretical. Until the FAA writes the rules, it’s just a potential market.”

Drones have been used in military operations, and some universities have been using them for educational purposes.

But the government has been slow to approve the use of drones for non-military use.

Only this year did federal laws allow police and other emergency personnel to fly drones. The drones must be lighter than 4.4 pounds, be flown below 400 feet and meet other requirements.

Under a federal law passed in February, the FAA must set rules for all kinds of drones, including those for commercial use, by Sept. 30, 2015.

Rebecca Jeschke, spokeswoman for the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco, which works “to protect fundamental civil liberties” in the face of technology, said, “Our big interest has always been privacy implications.”

“You can take a picture going down the street,” she said, “but aerial cameras and videos, especially — there are privacy questions that are involved that are different.”

HoverFlow is “strictly commercial,” Trafford said. “No private investigative work.”

When asked in a later interview about the FAA’s ban on commercial use, Trafford said there are “hundreds of companies using drones.”

“We’re all abiding by the hobbyist guidelines,” he said.

When pressed about whether the company had been paid for its work, Trafford said HoverFlow is not collecting revenue, contradicting earlier statements.

He said HoverFlow is merely gathering images for potential future sale.

HoverFlow’s website lists “rates and schedules,” and says “rates are based on a standard setup fee per location and a standard shooting rate per flight. Flights range from 8-10 minutes and include filming, photography, or a combination of both.”

The website also says “we are currently shooting a variety of stock images for limited and exclusive use and will provide local aerial footage at a reasonable cost.”

Trafford said HoverFlow has been in talks to do aerial photography of homes for the Boulos Co. and Re/Max By The Bay. The real estate firms did not return calls seeking comment.

HoverFlow also has contacted Sugarloaf Mountain Resort and Funtown Splashtown USA about future assignments, Trafford said.

Sugarloaf said it had been in contact with HoverFlow but had not hired it. Funtown Splashtown USA could not be reached for comment.

After being pressed about the FAA rules, Trafford said he and Mitchell were practicing using the drone as hobbyists and were trying to line up clients for the future.

“We don’t want to wait — we’re getting practice getting shots and experience,” Trafford said. “It’s legal for us to fly this.”

 

Staff Writer Jessica Hall can be contacted at 791-6316 or at:

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