U.S. commercial drone industry struggles to take off

State laws and a slow-moving FAA are stifling early growth, trade group says

The U.S. commercial drone industry is still struggling to get off the ground more than two years after President Obama signed into law a bill that permits the civilian use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) over the country's airspace.

Critics say a growing number of state-level anti-drone measures as well as a continuing lack of federal aviation rules for operating civilian drones are to blame for the industry's slow start.

The Federal Aviation Administration Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 authorizes the FAA to issue licenses for commercial drone use in the U.S. It also requires that the agency draft rules governing the use of civilian drones by law enforcement agencies and private entities.

The FAA modernization law was widely expected to result in tens of thousands of commercial drones being licensed to fly over U.S. airspace. So far, however, all it has produced is a lot of noise.

Since the law was passed in February 2012, about 43 states have proposed a total of 130 bills and resolutions seeking limits on drone use. A total of 13 states have enacted anti-drone laws, and another 11 have adopted resolutions seeking some type of restrictions on UAVs.

Most of the legislation was prompted by concerns that UAVs will enable unprecedented privacy and civil rights violations, especially by law enforcement authorities. Privacy and civil liberties advocates have consistently harped on how drones with facial recognition cameras, license plate scanners, thermal imaging cameras, open Wi-Fi sniffers and other sensors could be easily used for surveillance of the general public.

Earlier this month, lawmakers in Louisiana and Pennsylvania became the latest to announce proposals seeking to ban the use of UAVs in certain circumstances.

Meanwhile, the FAA itself has yet to come up with any safety and operational rules governing civilian drone use.

Also, the agency has issued just two commercial drone licenses in the U.S, since the law went into effect, according to Ben Gielow, general counsel of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), a drone trade group.

Of that, only one -- issued to energy giant ConocoPhillips -- is being used. Conoco currently operates a 40-lb. drone off the North Slope of Alaska to monitor oil pipelines and the movement of icebergs and to perform other maintenance-related monitoring.

The net result is that the U.S. is in danger of falling well behind other parts of the world in the use of drones for commercial applications, Gielow said.

In Europe and elsewhere, small UAVs, of the sort proposed in the U.S, are increasingly being used for a wide variety of purposes, including land management, crop monitoring, traffic management, real estate sales and news reporting. Even extremely privacy-friendly countries like Germany have permitted widespread use of UAVs in commercial applications, Gielow said.

Aerospace research company Teal Group estimates that sales of military and civilian drones will total over $89 billion in the next 10 years.

Drone use in the U.S., meanwhile, continues to be bogged down by misperceptions and overblown fears about privacy and security breaches, he said.

Many of those opposed to commercial UAVs tend to think of them as aircraft that are similar to military drones, not as the relatively small and lightweight vehicles that they are.

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