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In Mass., 22 companies received permits to fly drones

Floating a couple of hundred feet in the air, Mike Hourihan’s drone records images of the forests, fields, and suburban neighborhoods below.

The footage, streamed to a screen on the ground, helps search and rescue teams locate missing people.

“You’re looking for one single pixel, something that doesn’t look right,” said Hourihan. “In practice, it’s incredible.”

Drones are often associated with faraway dusty battlefields. But in Massachusetts and elsewhere, companies are taking advantage of the technology to obtain a different viewpoint, whether it be during rescue missions, scientific research, or even real estate sales.

As of the end of August, 22 Massachusetts-based companies and organizations had received a permit from the Federal Aviation Administration to legally fly commercial unmanned aircraft, according to FAA data collected by the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College and The Verge.


In all, the FAA has granted about 1,800 permits to companies to fly drones over America since September 2014, according to its website. Hobbyists are not required to obtain a permit.

To get the permit, known as a Section 333 exemption, petitioners must confirm that the drone operator has a pilot license and agree to safety measures that are designed to reduce the risk of injury to people on the ground — and interference with other aircraft.

Companies apply for the permits because they “have a reputation at stake, so they go out of their way to make sure they are extremely safe,” said Stephen Keen, president of geoResource Technologies, a drone company based in Cambridge.

The permits give operators a competitive advantage over those who are flying drones illegally, said Jim Peters, spokesman for the FAA, in an e-mail.

A common complaint among permit holders is that other companies are operating drones without permits.

One high-profile example was the FAA probe into three National Football League teams, including the New England Patriots, last summer for illegally flying drones to film practices. The NFL received a permit in September to film at stadiums (on non-game days) and practice facilities.


Drones are “certainly going to grow as an industry,” said Zach Lesinski, director of aerial services at Avwatch Inc., a video technology company based in Plymouth that holds a permit. “The FAA and local law enforcement need to come down hard on the unlicensed people doing this illegally.”

The number of companies receiving the permits has ballooned in recent months. In January, the FAA granted eight, according to the data. In August, it granted 389.

In reponse to the demand, the FAA streamlined the permit process, said Peters.

The ability to use drones for photography and filming is a major reason companies and organizations seek the permits. In more than half of the FAA’s Section 333 records, petitioners indicated they intended to use drones for those purposes.

And the drone operators aren’t just in the movie industry. The technology is being used to obtain aerial images of construction projects, homes, and even weddings.

Kevin Ham, owner of Force 4 Photography in Buzzards Bay, said the permit has allowed his company to expand into the real estate photography market — a very lucrative one on Cape Cod, he said.

“The shots are so stunning,” said Ham. “You can’t get them any other way.”


At Jeffrey Adams’s company, UAS Development Inc., a drone technology company in Holliston, drones are used to shoot aerial clips for advertising agencies and architecture firms. He hopes to expand the business to provide footage for documentaries and feature films.

“The requests are coming from industries far and wide, outside of television and film,” he said. “There are lots of applications for this technology.”

Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering in Needham applied for a permit so students could build drone technology that will be useful for firefighters, marine biologists, and others, said Andrew Bennett, an associate professor at the college.

“We want to create a system when a drone would know if there are people and refuse to fly there,” among other drone-related projects, said Bennett. “We want to add smarts to it.”

“I think they have huge potential for research groups, education groups, and things like that,” he said.

At the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, drones allow researchers a way to get up close to their research subjects, including whales.

Once, the researchers’ drone was flying over a whale when the animal blew mucus all over aircraft, said Hanumant Singh, senior scientist at the institution.

“That’s when they realized it’s the best way they can get DNA,” said Singh.

Not only are drones cheaper and safer than helicopters, said Singh, but they are “giving us a wonderful view of the ocean that we can’t get any other way.”

Catherine Cloutier can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @cmcloutier.