The Federal Aviation Administration is being harshly criticized by a coalition of 29 aviation groups, which argue in a joint letter that the agency is to blame for failing to meet a Sept. 30 Congressional deadline to get rules in place for commercial drone use in the United States.
The letter, from the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA) and 26 other groups, asked Michael Huerta, the administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration to get to work quickly to finalize the rules for small unmanned aircraft systems so that businesses can safely use them in a wide variety of industries across the nation.
In 2012, the FAA was told by Congress to create and integrate commercial drone rules with FAA rules for private and commercial airspace so that they could operate safely in the skies together. The Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) rules are commonly referred to as drone rules.
“While the FAA has hit some milestones in the integration process, it has yet to
finalize small UAS rules, let alone facilitate the full integration of UAS that Congress contemplated in 2012,” the letter stated. “The increasing number of
businesses applying for Section 333 exemptions demonstrates the pent-up demand for commercial UAS operations and the immediate need for a regulatory framework.”
Such exemptions have been granted by the FAA in the last few years to businesses and organizations that want to use drones in their work or research before the new rules are created and enacted. Some 1,800 exemptions so far have been granted across the United States, according to the FAA.
“On behalf of businesses across a wide range of industry sectors in the United States, we urge the FAA to use all available means to finalize the small UAS rules immediately without any further delays and move ahead with the next regulatory steps on the path for integrating all UAS into the National Air Space [system],” the letter continued. “Once this happens, we will have an established framework for UAS operations that will do away with the case-by-case system of approvals, reducing the barriers to commercial UAS operations. And importantly, having more trained commercial operators will create a culture of safety that helps deter careless and reckless behavior.”
Brian Wynne, president and CEO of the AUVSI, one of the groups that sent the letter, said the FAA’s continuing delays in issuing the drone rules for small UAS devices are uncalled for.
“What are we waiting for?” asked Wynne. “This is for under-55-pound [aircraft], flown by line of sight, under 500 feet [in altitude], daytime operations only, and away from people and airports. There is virtually no risk in that.”
Such UAS uses include things like bridge inspections, wind mill inspections, agricultural applications and other low-risk activities, he said. Operators would have to take a rules-based test to operate the UAS vehicles.
“Let’s get started,” said Wynne. “That’s our point.”
In a statement to eWEEK, an FAA spokesman said that the final small UAS rules are now expected to be completed by next spring. The Sept. 30 deadline from Congress called for a safe integration to be completed incrementally, and the agency has reached several milestones along the way to accomplish parts of the integration, the spokesman said.
FAA Criticized for Missing Deadline for Setting Drone Rules
“We developed the plan(s) and have been meeting milestones in those plans,” the spokesman said. “Congress said ‘safe’ integration, not ‘full’ or ‘complete’ integration. ‘Safe’ integration requires that it take place on an incremental basis.”
Wynne, of the AUVSI, criticized that argument. “If they want to have that argument, they can have it with Congress,” he said of the FAA’s position. “I didn’t mandate it. Congress did.”
The economic impact of continuing to wait for the rules is an estimated $83 billion in the United States over the next 10 years once the rules are in place and businesses can use them, and that is for aviation businesses alone, said Wynne.
The FAA has been working since 2012 to develop rules and procedures for the commercial use of drones in the United States. In June, an FAA spokesman said the agency is working to have drone regulations in place by mid-2016. Now the agency is saying it will be next April or so. The regulations will govern drone flights and keep them safely away from commercial and private aircraft traffic as well as pedestrians and other hazards on the ground.
A wide range of businesses, from e-retailer Amazon to agricultural businesses, photographers, energy production companies, news operations and others have been clamoring for the ability to use drones for several years, but have been prevented from doing so until the FAA implements regulations to ensure their safe operation. The companies have been arguing that delays in implementing drone rules in the United States have kept businesses from benefiting from cost savings and new revenue from their use.
In August, the FAA announced a new beta B4UFLY mobile app that offers to help drone pilots ensure safe flight paths for their UASes. B4UFLY is a free app that is being offered for beta-testing by up to 1,000 UAS users, including drone pilots and model aircraft hobbyists, to provide up-to-date information on hazards and restrictions in the area where they fly their drones or model planes.
In July, Amazon proposed the use of specific sections of U.S. airspace for drone flights so that it could push forward with its plans to provide package delivery flights across the United States, eWEEK reported at the time. Amazon’s idea is to designate airspace below 200 feet for drones that do surveying or inspections or take videos, while reserving airspace between 200 to 400 feet for delivery drones that are making their way over communities. Such a system would then connect drones as they are operating to an online network that would manage their flights in real time to keep them from harm’s way. The airspace between 200 and 400 feet would allow drones to be flown autonomously, while being equipped with sophisticated sense-and-avoid technologies.
Amazon has been looking at drone deliveries as a way of offering faster service to customers while also saving money, compared with the more costly human-based delivery systems.