White House races to finish drone rules

The White House is picking up the pace on drones.

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The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has struggled to keep up with the emerging technology and develop a national framework to integrate drones into the national airspace. But regulators are expected to ramp up their work in the remaining months of the Obama administration.

A major new rule on small commercial drone use is going into effect; another regulation is expected by year’s end; and officials will be implementing a slew of drone policy initiatives rolled out earlier this week.
“We’ve now heard the sound of a gun, so the race is on,” said Brian Wynne, the president and chief executive officer of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.

Although the industry has generally applauded the flurry of action, some advocates are disappointed it didn’t happen sooner, although they acknowledge rulemaking is a naturally slow process.

And industry leaders caution that the new regulation is only the first of many steps needed to accelerate the widespread adoption of drones.

“I’m still a little disappointed it took this long. Rulemaking has been in progress for almost a decade,” said Brendan Schulman, vice president of policy and legal affairs for drone manufacturer DJI. “It would have been helpful to have rules in place a couple years ago. People would be much more familiar with the beneficial applications today.”

For years, commercial drone operators have been forced to apply for a special waiver exemption from the FAA if they wanted to fly unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), a process which proponents of the technology say is timely and costly.

In 2012, Congress directed the FAA to craft a plan by September 2015 for safely integrating civil unmanned aircraft into the national airspace system, but regulators have wrestled with how to balance safety and innovation.

Drones are being deployed across the country for a wide range of reasons, including for inspecting physical infrastructure, responding to natural disasters, conducting search-and-rescue missions, monitoring agriculture and studying severe storms.

The fast-growing industry is projected to generate more than $80 billion for the U.S. economy in the next decade and could create up to 100,000 jobs.

“This is an industry that’s moving at the speed of Silicon Valley,” FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said at a White House drone workshop earlier this week. “We can’t respond at the speed of government.”

This summer, the administration finally took the first major step toward integrating drones into the national airspace.

The FAA finalized a long-anticipated rule in June that permits commercial drone use for aircraft weighing less than 55 pounds.

Under the regulation, which takes effect Aug. 29, operators will no longer need to apply for a waiver. They just need to register their drones online, pass an aviation knowledge test at an FAA-approved testing center and be at least 16 years old.

Huerta announced at the White House workshop this week that he also plans to propose rules permitting the operation of drones directly over crowds by the end of this year, which unmanned aircraft advocates view as another potential victory on the horizon.

In conjunction with the workshop, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy unveiled other new efforts to boost drone use, including $35 million in funding over the next five years from the National Science Foundation for drone research and a commitment from the industry to implement a broad educational effort to help promote best privacy best practices.

The FAA will also be chartering a new safety team and a drone advisory committee to analyze safety data and mitigate drone threats, as well as forming a data exchange working group with NASA.

“Many of us in the industry for years were concerned that the FAA was behind, but I think with the new rules they’ve caught up in a big way,” said Schulman.

But the small commercial drone rule still has a number of restrictions. Drones must stay in the operator’s visual line of sight and only daylight and twilight flights are allowed, although operators can apply for nighttime flights.

Advocates hope to see some of those issues addressed in the near future.

In the meantime, the industry plans to build on the current momentum and ensure that the new regulation is effectively implemented.

“It’s been action packed. There’s no question we’ve been gaining momentum,” Wynne said. “But I think the next six months will be really important in establishing the implementation of [the small commercial drone rule] and that, too, will need to be collaborative.”