Magazine article National Defense

Industry, Entrepreneurs Await FAA Small Drone Ruling

Magazine article National Defense

Industry, Entrepreneurs Await FAA Small Drone Ruling

Article excerpt

In October 2011, Raphael Pirker, an unmanned aerial vehicle enthusiast, flew a Ritewing Zephyr powered glider aircraft around the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. He used it to take aerial video and photographs. When the Federal Aviation Administration--the agency tasked with regulating unmanned aircraft--later heard about his flight, it accused Pirker of flying recklessly and slapped him with a $10,000 fine.

While hobbyists and recreational users of small UAVs are free to use the aircraft in most domestic airspace, commercial entities are not yet able to take advantage of the technology, according to federal regulations. That's where Pirker went wrong--he was getting paid for his services.

Rules and guidance from the FAA are required before commercial companies can fly unmanned aircraft legally. The agency is scheduled to announce a notice of proposed rulemaking for small unmanned aerial systems later this year, but some industry members say the agency has already taken too long and is stifling innovation.

"They need to hurry up. They have been sitting on this rule ... and this whole predicament they find themselves in is of their own making. They have known that this was coming for years, but they haven't done anything to regulate unmanned aircraft, so now they are scrambling," said Ben Gielow, senior government relations manager and general counsel for the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.

An economic impact report released by the association last spring found that within 10 years of UAV integration into the national airspace, more than $80 billion would be pumped into the economy and more than 100,000 jobs created.

"None of that economic potential or jobs will be realized until the FAA writes those safety rules," Gielow said.

Entrepreneurs have big hopes for UAVs. Farmers want to use them to survey crops, realtors to take aerial photographs of homes and moviemakers to shoot hard to film scenes. But they are all hitting major roadblocks as they run into FAA red tape.

In April, AUVS1 along with dozens of industry partners called for the FAA to expedite its rulemaking decision.

"The potential benefits for unmanned aerial systems cannot be underestimated. Whether it is helping farmers improve crop yields, assisting first responders with search-and-rescue missions, or advancing scientific research, UAS are capable of saving time, saving money and, most importantly, saving lives," the letter said. "The time for resolution has come, and we cannot afford any further delays. The technology is advancing faster than the regulations to govern it."

One of the most frustrating parts of the FAA's regulatory procedures is the arbitrariness of what defines an unmanned aerial vehicle, Gielow said.

Currently, the agency makes a distinction between model and unmanned aircraft, but the only difference is the operator's intention, Gielow said.

"If you're flying an unmanned aircraft or a model aircraft and you're just doing it for fun and recreation, the FAA says, 'OK, you're a model aircraft. You don't need to abide by any FAA rules. Just operate these things safely, and you'll be fine," Gielow said. "But as soon as you use an aircraft for anything other than recreation or hobby--so whether it's real estate agents or the roofer or the farmer--all of the sudden the FAA says, 'No, no, no, you can't do that, because you're a commercial activity."

"From a safety standpoint, that doesn't make any sense," Gielow said.

Under the Federal Aviation Administration Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, the agency was mandated to integrate small unmanned aerial vehicles under 55 pounds into the domestic airspace by September 2015. To gather data on UAVs, the agency said it would create test sites around the country, but it missed key deadlines to establish them.

Late last year, the agency announced the six sites it would use to collect data, which included the University of Alaska, the state of Nevada, New York's Griffiss International Airport, North Dakota's Department of Commerce, Texas A&M University Corpus Christi and Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. …

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