Aerospace, Consumer Tech Lobbies Join Forces to Push for Domestic Drone Regulations

By Sandra I. Erwin

Manufacturers and operators of small drones are becoming increasingly frustrated as the Federal Aviation Administration delays the release of proposed rules for the use of unmanned aircraft in U.S. airspace.

Seeking to ramp up the pressure on the agency, aerospace manufacturers have teamed up with the consumer electronics industry to help convince the FAA that the absence of a regulatory structure for small drones is harmful to a large segment of the U.S. economy.  

"American entrepreneurs and businesses cannot realize the tremendous benefits and efficiencies of UAS systems until the proposed rule moves forward," saysa letter signed by Marion Blakey, president and CEO of the Aerospace Industries Association, and Gary Shapiro, president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association. The March 26 letter, addressed to FAA Administrator Michael Huerta, asks the agency to "move forward expeditiously on issuing and approving the notice of proposed rulemaking regulating the use of small unmanned aircraft systems in U.S. airspace."
Congress directed the FAA to issue final rules by August 2014. "And we haven't even seen the proposed rule," AIA Vice President Richard Efford tells National Defense. "They should at least jump start the process."

The small UAS rules are two years behind schedule, says AIA's Ali Bahrami. As the demand for small drones skyrockets, there is a pressing need for regulations, he says. Whereas industry lobbies usually fight against regulations, this is the rare case in which industries are pleading with the government to impose rules.

"Manufacturers, operators, or any reputable company that has something to lose, wants a regulatory structure" for unmanned aircraft, says Mark Dombroff, an aviation industry attorney at McKenna Long & Aldridge LLP. The firm recently created a UAS-focused practice to deal with the anticipated onslaught of litigation associated with drones in the United States.

"It's a whole new universe of issues for lawyers," Dombroff says in an interview. Drone regulations cannot come soon enough, he says. “No responsible company is going to endanger its brand or assets until there’s a structure out there and it’s safe.”

While aircraft makers and operators recognize that the FAA's priority is safety, executives contend that small UAS — weighing no more than 55 pounds — do not pose risks comparable to larger airplanes that would fly in the same space as airlines or general aviation.

FAA officials contend that any legitimate operator today can request a permit to fly a drone. Bahrami counters that while this is true, acquiring a permit is cumbersome and time consuming.

The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International estimated the economic impact of the integration of UAS into the national airspace at $13.6 billion in the first three years. It could create more than 34,000 manufacturing jobs.

Such economic boom will not happen, Bahrami says, until the FAA takes the first step to regulate small drones.

Efford says the combined weight of aerospace and consumer industries might help expedite the process. "Nobody can force the FAA to issue regulations, but it lets them know that it's not just aerospace or defense industry manufacturers that are asking the agency to do this. It's a reminder to them that there are multiple sectors of the economy that will benefit from small UAS regulations," he says.

Dombroff believes that an ongoing dispute over the FAA’s jurisdiction on the use of drones could light a fire under the agency. In a March 6 ruling (Michael P. Huerta v. Raphael Pirker), a National Transportation Safety Board administrative judge tossed out a $10,000 fine levied by the FAA against the operator of a small glider. The judge concluded that model aircraft can fly in U.S. skies and the FAA lacked the authority to impose that fine.

The FAA is appealing the ruling, which has the effect of staying the decision until an NTSB panel issues its findings. “The agency is concerned that this decision could impact the safe operation of the national airspace system and the safety of people and property on the ground,” asserts Huerta in a statement.

“I think the ruling is wrong,” Dombroff says. The NTSB judge determined that no regulatory scheme currently gives the FAA enforcement power. As a result of this case, he says, “We’re likely to see the FAA accelerate rule making.”

It is conceivable that the FAA might issue emergency rules to fill the gap until it completes formal rules, to prevent people from thinking they have a free pass, says Dombroff. “I think the FAA will have initial rules out before the end of 2014.” In fairness to the FAA, he says, “It’s a very complex set of circumstances that the agency has been handed and now they’re under pressure to get something done.”

Following the Pirker ruling, the FAA published on its website a list of misconceptions about unmanned aircraft. It notes that UAS, regardless of whether they are used for recreational, hobby, business or commercial purposes, are treated as aircraft, and all civil aircraft are subject to FAA regulation under law. “The FAA presently has regulations that apply to the operation of all aircraft, whether manned or unmanned, and irrespective of the altitude at which the aircraft is operating,” the agency says. To date, only two UAS models (the Scan Eagle and Aerovironment’s Puma) have been certified for commercial use, and they are only authorized to fly in the Arctic.

Congress in the 2012 FAA reauthorization legislation directed the agency to come up with a plan for safe integration of UAS by September 30, 2015. The FAA has said it expects to publish a proposed rule for small UAS later this year. That rule likely will include provisions for commercial operations. The FAA estimates that roughly 7,500 commercial small UAS will be in operation in U.S. airspace within five years.

Topics: Aviation, Robotics, Unmanned Air Vehicles

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