FAA May Allow Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Exemptions for Key Industries

By Valerie Insinna

ORLANDO — As pressure mounts on the Federal Aviation Administration to allow unmanned aerial systems to fly in national airspace, the agency is considering measures that would permit certain industries to carry out limited commercial operations, an official said May 14.

Jim Williams, the FAA’s manager of unmanned aerial vehicle integration, said four industries — precision agriculture, filmmaking, power and pipeline inspection, and oil and gas flare stack inspections — have approached the FAA seeking an exemption from current rules.

“I stress the word 'may,' as we are still evaluating this option and developing our internal processes,” Williams said at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International conference.

If those industries file for an exemption, it could still be a while before they are able to fly commercial UAS missions. The first exemption request would have to be published for public comment before approval, Williams said. “There are no precise requirements for how long it takes. New and novel things like this can take some time, so it just depends.”
Industry executives have long bemoaned current regulations, which forbid commercial operations and strictly control unmanned aerial vehicle use in the national airspace.

With commercial applications including dusting crops, filming television shows and fighting fires, companies are eager to sell UAS and their services. Many manufacturers displayed drones in the exhibit hall that were custom built for those purposes, but until federal law is changed, the customer base is thin. 

Brian Meredith, an assembly technician for a small, two-man company called Falcon UAV explained how frustrating the regulations can be. When floods hit Colorado last year, the firm volunteered to fly unmanned aircraft for the Boulder County Emergency Operations Center, providing real time video streams that allowed first responders to find and rescue victims. After three days, the Federal Emergency Management Agency told Falcon that they would no longer be able to conduct operations because of FAA regulations. 

“That particular day was so windy [and] the downpour was so hard that no helicopter or manned pilot could fly. Nothing was in the air,” he told National Defense at the conference. “We said, 'we'll fly, we'll fly,' and we got grounded."

Falcon — which sells fixed-wing and rotorcraft UAS that weigh about 10 pounds — may have to rely on international sales until the FAA passes regulations for small UAS. The company has built 11 unmanned aerial vehicles this year, Meredith said. Ten of those are going to Africa.

"I had a lot of people coming up to me all day yesterday saying, ‘This is great, but I can't use it,’" Meredith said. "We have birds here in the Orange Country Sherriff's Department, and they're grounded. They're locked in the locker. ... Politically, the captain won't allow it because he doesn't want the backlash."

Under the Federal Aviation Administration Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, the FAA is mandated to integrate small drones into national airspace by 2015. Rules governing the use of small UAS under 55 pounds were supposed to be in place by September, but the FAA will miss that deadline, Williams said.

The administration plans on releasing a notice of proposed rulemaking for small UAS later this year. Once that is released, industry and the public will have 60 to 90 days to comment.

It usually takes 18 months after the release of a notice for the FAA to release finalized rules, Williams said. However, if there are a lot of comments, it could take even longer.

“The rulemaking process is a lengthy one,” he said. “This is just the first step to integrating UAS weighing less than 55 pounds into our skies. It’s important to mention that until the small UAS rule is finalized, commercial operations are only authorized by the FAA on a case-by-case basis.”

That has only happened once, he said. Last September, ConocoPhillips flew an Insitu ScanEagle over the Chukchi Sea, about 120 miles from the coast of Alaska. The ScanEagle and Aerovironment’s Puma are the only UAS authorized for commercial operations, but users still must receive FAA approval every time they wish to fly. Current rules also mandate that a licensed pilot must fly the system.

UAV Solutions, a Jessup, Maryland-based unmanned vehicle company, showcased a variety of low-weight systems under 25 pounds during the conference. The hope is that once the FAA releases small UAS rules, sales will follow, said Sharon Corona, who does marketing for the company.

Law enforcement agencies have shown interest in the UAS, but so far there have been no sales, she said. "I don't want to poke at the FAA, but everyone is trying to figure out what we can do in the commercial space.”

Even the biggest defense contractors are eager to market UAS to civil government and commercial industry.

Lockheed Martin and Kaman Aircraft are in talks with the FAA to certify the K-MAX unmanned cargo helicopter in the national airspace, said Terry Fogarty, business development for Kaman’s K-MAX helicopter programs. The Marine Corps has been using K-MAX in Afghanistan since 2011 to transport equipment.

Because the K-MAX carries its cargo in an external load, it will not be able to fly over any populated areas, but it could be used in austere operating environments. The first autonomous flight could happen in a matter of months, not years, Fogarty said.

“We’re flying in the national airspace right now with a pilot onboard, but that whole autonomous system is already partially approved by the FAA because we have to show them our data to renew our experimental certificate every six months. So they know what software build we have in there, what our equipment is … what data links we’re using,” he said.

Northrop Grumman debuted its Rotary-Bat unmanned helicopter at the conference, which combines the airframe of Yamaha’s RMAX helicopter with Northrop Grumman’s autonomous technology.

Potential uses include police and fire department assistance and detecting leaks in gas pipelines, said Terry Parisher, manager of land forces business development for medium range tactical systems.

The company will work with the FAA to certify the aircraft for use in the NAS, he said. R-Bat will be deployed on a joint high speed vessel in June as a near term way for the company to collect data.

“We’re going to operate off the coast supporting the Navy in shipboard activities using the R-Bat as an observation tool, mine detection tool, and counter-narcotics,” he said. The company is also pursuing a study with the Department of Energy in which the aircraft would detect gas leaks.

Congress will continue to push the FAA to speed up the process without compromising privacy and safety, said Rep. Frank Lobiondo, R-N.J., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s subcommittee on aviation. 

The FAA is too cautious, he said in a speech on May 12. "That's what worries me, that if we are too cautious through this whole process, we're going to miss that opportunity that for many may not come back again, and we don't want to look back in a couple of years and decide, 'well, we should have handled that differently.'"

"I understand that bureaucracy can eat you up alive, and that's going to hold back the economic potential that could be unleashed,” he said. “At a time when the economy is struggling, at a time when we're looking to increase jobs, here's an area that's right in front of us."

Topics: Robotics, Unmanned Air Vehicles

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