In 2014, LandBros Aerial became the first Louisiana company to be authorized by the Federal Aviation Administration to fly drones. Commercial use of drones was generally illegal, but users could apply for exemptions to operate in specific airspaces.

LandBros, founded by brothers Danny and Kevin Landry, focuses on serving industrial clients.

“At the beginning we weren’t getting much traction,” Danny Landry says. “Nobody knew what it was.”

But if drones aren’t mainstream yet in the industrial sector, they’re well on their way. Turner Industries, the Capital Region’s biggest industrial contractor, recently added a drone division. Louisiana now has an unmanned vehicle systems trade association. And the FAA has loosened its rules for commercial drone use, lowering the barriers to enter the business.

Danny Landry says the higher profile can only help his growing Baton Rouge-based business, noting he’s got a two-year head-start on his new competitors. His drone pilots also are licensed to fly manned aircraft, which is no longer required by law but assures plant managers they will operate safely, he adds.

Industry leaders remain concerned about safety and security. But within a few years, Landry wouldn’t be surprised to see multiple drone contractors at a single plant site, or even autonomous drones performing inspections without a pilot.

But no, he says, the machines aren’t taking over.

“We’re not taking your jobs,” Landry tells workers. “We’re making certain jobs safer.”

LEARNING TO FLY

Turner started offering drones for inspections this summer, says David Guitreau, the company’s senior vice president. It’s a fairly small operation, including three unmanned aerial vehicle systems and two pilots—but one Turner plans to expand, he says.

Drones offer two big advantages over manual inspections, users say: improved safety and enhanced profits. Workers don’t have to climb scaffolds or crawl into tight spaces, and equipment such as flare stacks can be inspected while still operating.

“They’re not shutting any equipment down,” Guitreau says, “and they’re not having to put anybody in harm’s way.”

UAV cameras can shoot 4K high-definition video, while infrared cameras can detect cold and hot spots as well as leaks that may not be visible to the human eye. Drones also are used for geospatial 3-D mapping and to determine the volume of a large pile of material.

At a recent UAV trade show in Las Vegas, Guitreau was looking into buying a drone that is encased in a hollow sphere that allows it to bounce off walls undamaged, allowing it to fly inside confined spaces such as storage tanks or boilers.

“It’s kind of like the way computers were back in the ’80s,” he says. “It’s one progression after another after another. By the time you think you’ve mastered one, the next generation is out.”

ExxonMobil Baton Rouge uses UAVs to assist with long-term inspection and maintenance plans, says spokeswoman Lana Sonnier Venable. She says the devices help the company develop better maintenance plans before taking equipment out of service, improving reliability in refinery operations.

“They enable us to conduct more detailed inspections of certain equipment prior to maintenance work,” she says.

UP IN THE AIR

The Louisiana Pelican Chapter of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International launched in June, says R. George Rey, the chapter’s president. Rey also helped establish a UAV program at Nicholls State University, he says.

“The technology was taking off,” Rey says, when asked about the need for the Louisiana association. “I was watching it grow here in Louisiana, and a number of folks I know were saying, ‘We should be doing this.’” The association advocates for drone users and plans to host a “Day at the Capitol” during the next session of the Louisiana Legislature, as interest groups often do.

Obtaining a Section 333 Exemption from the FAA for commercial drone use originally required a manned aircraft pilot license. But this summer, the federal government issued a new set of regulations titled Part 107.

Commercial drone pilots no longer need a regular pilot’s license, although they still must pass an exam covering aeronautics and safety, Rey says. According to industry estimates, the rule could allow drone usage to add more than $82 billion to the U.S. economy and create more than 100,000 new jobs over the next 10 years.

The FAA is still refining its drone regulations. Rey expects it will issue rules governing flying drones beyond the pilot’s line of sight, which currently is banned. Greg Bowser, president of the Louisiana Chemical Association and the Louisiana Chemical Industry Alliance, hopes the FAA will establish new safety and security measures.

“We’ve had incidents where drones fly over our facilities or even through the facilities without permission,” he says. “You don’t know who it is.”

Concerns include accidental crashes and terrorism. LCA/LCIA wants the federal government to restrict flying drones over plants and critical infrastructure, and to require identifying information on the aircraft.

This year, Gov. John Bel Edwards signed two laws restricting drone use near schools or correctional facilities, and when not permitted by the landowner. But really, it’s the FAA, not the state, that has jurisdiction over the skies.

CROWDING SKIES

Paul Charbonnet, co-owner of Baton Rouge-based Atmosphere Aerial, has been flying drones for several years. When he first started, the vehicles were cobbled together by hobbyists with parts purchased at Radio Shack, and he crashed a few while learning to fly them.

Today, you can buy a ready-to-fly drone from Amazon.

“All the drones that we operate now, we didn’t have to build a single one of them,” he says.

Charbonnet and his partner have a film and television background, so that was the initial focus of their business. But they kept getting calls for industrial jobs, so they expanded into that area.

The Section 333 requirement that commercial drone pilots also be licensed to fly manned aircraft was “a huge hurdle for a lot of people,” he says. But the new rules have removed that hurdle and cleared up some of the legal gray areas.

“For a long time, we rode the fenceline between being innovators and pirates,” Charbonnet says.

But now, Charbonnet can tell potential clients that he has an “official drone license.” And in that regard, he’s likely to have a lot more company very soon.