WASHINGTON– In the past two years, more than a million unmanned aircraft systems have been sold in the United States, but only a small fraction- 3,853 to be exact- have been cleared to fly commercially in American skies, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.
A bill, approved by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in February, is looking to change that and put more drones in the air.
To date, the FAA has done little in the way of creating standards that would allow for the integration of drones into the national airspace. What’s needed are rules on pilot training, air traffic control and safety for all types of commercial drones.
Once regulations are put in place, commercial aviation will be changed as unmanned aircraft begin to do the same work as manned aircraft. Applications include drones assisting in package delivery, traffic control, weather monitoring, television news coverage, and oil and gas exploration, according to the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, a trade group.
“This is the fourth stage of the industrial revolution, industrial revolution 4.0,” said Keith Kaplan, CEO of the Tesla Foundation. “Robots are an integral part of commerce and the United States needs to be involved now in leading this area.”
The Aviation Innovation, Reform and Reauthorization Act, which includes 2017 budget authority for the FAA, comes after years of little action by the agency in the way of developing drone standards.
“The FAA is behind schedule in developing required rules and regulations for the integration of drones into the airspace,” according to Justin Harclerod, communications advisor for the transportation committee. “Major U.S. companies have taken some of their early UAS (unmanned aircraft systems) research and development activities to other countries because current regulations are too burdensome.”
The FAA bill has not yet been scheduled for a floor vote. It does, however, have a companion in the senate set to be marked up on March 16. If drone regulations are successfully implemented, some 70,000 jobs could be created with an economic impact of more than $13.6 billion, according to a report by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.
Whether the U.S. has regulations or not, over the next 10 years an estimated $89 billion will be invested globally in drones, according to the FAA.
If the U.S. wants to remain competitive in this sector of the aviation market, standards need to be developed so the innovation, production and operation of drones does not go offshore where rules are already in place.
“What the Reauthorization Act is doing is saying FAA, you got to figure out a way to have unmanned aircrafts interact with manned aircrafts as fast as possible,” said Kaplan. “The reason why is that it’s holding back commerce.”
While the FAA declined to comment on the proposed legislation. Some experts believe that the agency has been slow to set rules because it is understaffed and lacks resources.
President Barack Obama’s budget seeks $15.9 billion in funding for the FAA next year, virtually unchanged from 2016 spending.
Even though Congress’ actions to prod the FAA are often applauded by the commercial UAS industry, skeptics say the legislation is only a first step in encouraging regulations.
“The lawmakers are not sitting down with the technologists, engineers and scientists to understand the full scope of all of it,” said Kaplan, who is also the interim CEO of the Unmanned Vehicle Association. “The incompleteness of all of it will hamper our ability to move forward quickly.”
In 2016, drones can be used recreationally – hobbyists flying an unmanned aircraft around a backyard, or taking photos or videos from high altitudes for personal use.
Commercial use is more complicated. It is limited to case-by-case approval by the FAA. Operators of small drones – those weighing 55 pounds or less – must apply for an exemption and a certification of authorization from the FAA that allows them to fly under specific circumstances they have requested.
These kinds of exemptions, originally issued for commercial use of drones on movie sets for filming purposes, have expanded to cover activities on a case-by-case basis, such as precision aerial surveying, mapping agricultural operations and aerial photography for real estate.
In Washington, the FAA is finalizing a small drone use rule. It would create a streamlined, time efficient process for small drone registration. The rule would also ease regulations on small drone operators by replacing the pilot license requirement – that is, a manned aircraft license — with a simple passing score on a knowledge test.
Under the 2016 aviation bill, a permitting process will be created for small drones, replacing exemptions.
Regulating small drones is essential as a starting point. Once the small drone rule is in place, the next step is to expand guidelines for other drone sizes and classes of operators, from enthusiasts to professionals, according to Kaplan.
“We need to have a small UAS rule finalized as soon as possible,” said Tom McMahon, vice president of Advocacy and Public Affairs for the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. “That is an important first step in integrating UAS into the national airspace and to achieving the benefits that UAS of all sizes are going to provide for our country.”
The legislation also directs the FAA to create a drone use research and development plan, and it calls on the Transportation Department to analyze the privacy implications of drones.
“We believe this legislation will help spur action and provide additional avenues for permitting UAS operations,” said Harclerod. “The FAA and industry will have greater flexibility with which to work which should address some of the pent-up demand.”
The House aviation bill is not the first attempt at forcing FAA regulations. In 2012, Congress passed the FAA Modernization and Reform Act, which legalized commercial and civilian drone use in the U.S. Under this law, the Federal Aviation Administration was urged to establish rules for small UAS operation by 2014 and then set standards for widespread drone traffic by September 30, 2015.
It didn’t happen.
By mid 2014, the FAA was behind schedule on both sets of regulations and had to impose a de facto ban on commercial drones. The following year, with little progress, Congress enacted the Drone Aircraft Privacy and Transparency Act which put more pressure on the FAA to establish regulations.