Like it or not, private drones are coming to U.S. airspace. The only question is how soon that happens.
With companies like Amazon.com and Google advancing plans to use small unmanned aerial vehicles for commercial purposes, pressure is mounting on the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to quickly release rules governing private drone use.
Just last week, Google disclosed details of a hitherto secret program dubbed Project Wing under which it wants to use small unmanned aircraft to deliver lightweight emergency supplies to disaster zones and isolated areas.
Amazon is already into advanced testing of drones for use in its proposed Prime Air package delivery service, while drone makers like Yamaha and Trimble Navigation want the government to approve their vehicles for limited commercial use.
Ever since the Obama administration's FAA Modernization Act of 2012 cleared the way for commercial drones in the U.S., the FAA has been working to craft safety rules for private drone operators.
But to the growing frustration of drone lobbyists and several industry trade groups, the FAA is still more than a year away from releasing anything final. Until then, commercial entities like Amazon and Google are prohibited from operating or even testing their drones outdoors.
The Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), which represents the drone industry, has sharply criticized the agency for moving too slowly to get the rules out.
In April, AUVSI and 31 other industry associations sent a letter to the FAA urging it to expedite the rule-making process. The groups, which included media organizations, real estate companies and public safety organizations, asked the agency to at least grant exemptions to organizations seeking to operate drones for limited commercial purposes while the rules are being finalized.
"We cannot afford any further delays. The technology is advancing faster than the regulations to govern it," the group said in its letter. "The current regulatory void has left American entrepreneurs and others either sitting on the sidelines or operating in the absence of appropriate safety guidelines.
According to AUVSI, the drone industry will create more than 100,000 jobs and generate $82 billion in revenue in 10 years, once the rules are finalized. "Every year that integration is delayed, the United States loses more than $10 billion in potential economic impact," the organization claimed.
The FAA says that it's working to expedite the approval process for limited drone use in applications like crop-spraying, film-making, flare-stack inspections, precision agriculture and pipeline and power-line inspections. Several organizations have filed for exemptions with the FAA, including Amazon.com, Yamaha and several companies in the film and television industry, according to AUVSI.
In comments to Computerworld this week, an FAA spokesman said the agency is currently on track to release an initial draft of its rules for unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) before the end of the year.
The release of the draft regulations, in a document known as a notice of proposed rulemaking, would be followed by a comment period during which stakeholders in the industry could review the proposed rules and offer their own comments and suggestions. The FAA would then review the comments and issue a final set of rules later.
The timing of the final rules depends on the amount and complexity of the public comments the FAA receives, a spokeswoman said Monday. "There's no way for us to say at this point, but it's a very high priority. It will depend on the comments," she said.
That uncertainty is something the FAA will need to address soon. While it wants commercial entities and others to obtain approval before they can operate drones for business reasons, there are few restrictions on drone use for recreational purposes. So even while the Amazons and Googles of the world have to wait patiently to even test drones outdoors, a growing number of people have begun using unmanned aircraft for fun.
It's a situation that has already landed the FAA in trouble. Earlier this year, an administrative law judge at the National Transportation Safety Board overturned a $10,000 fine imposed by the FAA on an individual for using a drone to take aerial photos and videos of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.
The judge reasoned that the FAA had no basis for imposing the fine because there are no formal rules or guidelines for operating unmanned aerial vehicles in U.S. airspace.
The FAA claimed the individual, Raphael Pirker, had flown the aircraft over the school in a dangerous and reckless manner and in violation of federal aviation safety rules. The FAA also had faulted Pirker for operating the drone for commercial gain without the requisite FAA authorization.
In April, Texas EquuSearch, a nonprofit organization that helps search for missing people, sued the FAA for "unlawful, arbitrary, capricious" behavior after the agency ordered the nonprofit to stop using small drones in search-and-rescue missions.
In its lawsuit, Texas EquuSearch likened its drone to a model aircraft, noting that it weighed less than 5 lbs. and used the same kind of radio control system that hobbyists use. The nonprofit said the aircraft had been invaluable in locating missing persons and in helping guide searchers over rough and dangerous terrain. As with the Pirker case, Texas EquuSearch, too, claimed that the FAA had no legal basis for asking it to stop operating its drones.
Formal FAA rules should also help address at least some of the security and privacy concerns raised by several watchdog groups.
Civil rights and privacy advocates have noted that drones raise security questions that need to be addressed urgently. Most of their concerns have to do with law enforcement's use of the vehicles.
The groups have warned that drones equipped with facial recognition cameras, license plate scanners, thermal imaging cameras, open Wi-Fi sniffers and other sensors could be used by law enforcement for mass surveillance. A total of 43 states have proposed about 130 bills and resolutions seeking limits on drone use because of such concerns. Anti-drone laws have been enacted in 13 states, and another 11 states have adopted resolutions seeking some type of restrictions on UAVs.
While the FAA's rules are unlikely to answer all of the privacy questions that advocacy groups have posed, they should at least help address some of the public's safety concerns.