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FAA has road map for drones, but is behind schedule

Dec. 2, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
By Bart Jansen, USA TODAY   |   Comments
Amazon is working on the so-called Prime Air unmanned aircraft project in its research and development labs. Amazon says it will take years to advance the technology and for the Federal Aviation Administration to create the necessary rules and regulations.
Amazon is working on the so-called Prime Air unmanned aircraft project in its research and development labs. Amazon says it will take years to advance the technology and for the Federal Aviation Administration to create the necessary rules and regulations. (AP via Amazon)

The Federal Aviation Administration has released a road map for allowing drones to fly everywhere in the country, but research and regulations are months behind the schedule Congress set to have drones fly safely with commercial airliners by September 2015.

FAA Administrator Michael Huerta released the five-year road map a month ago, which projected 7,500 unmanned aircraft in the skies within that period if regulations are in place.

Technical complexities facing the FAA, however, include how much training to require of ground-based pilots, how to ensure that drones fly safely if they lose contact with their pilot, and how drones and commercial aircraft should warn each other when they're in the same area.

"The FAA is committed to safe, efficient and timely integration of unmanned aircraft systems into our airspace," the agency said in a statement Monday. "Over the next several years the FAA will establish regulations and standards for the safe integration of remote piloted (unmanned aircraft) to meet increased demand."

The issue of commercial drones came to the forefront this week when Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos told CBS' 60 Minutes that the online retail giant is testing the delivery of packages with drones.

The next step in the regulatory process is for Huerta to designate six experimental locations for researchers to test flying drones in general airspace. The agency received 25 proposals from 26 states, and an announcement is expected this month.

Also, the FAA hopes to release a proposed rule in 2014 for small drones.

"We have operational goals as well as safety issues that we must consider when planning to expand the use of unmanned aircraft," Huerta said.

Despite the challenges, Michael Toscano, CEO of the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, welcomed the road map. He said the industry is projected to create 100,000 jobs and generate $82 billion in economic activity in the decade after the aircraft are allowed in general airspace.

"From advancing scientific research and responding to natural disasters to locating missing persons and helping to fight wildfires, (unmanned aircraft) can save time, save money and, most importantly, save lives," Toscano said.

Drones are now severely limited. A hobbyist can fly a small aircraft several hundred feet off the ground. The FAA has approved several hundred permits for university research and public uses, including 80 law-enforcement agencies.

Only one commercial permit has been granted, for a drone in the Arctic to monitor marine mammals and ice for oil drilling. No permits have been granted for drones to fly without pilots along programmed courses, such as what Amazon envisions.

"We consider that in the context of how we can safely manage it in the airspace that we have it's by exception, it's not as of right," Huerta said.

The research and regulations are already behind schedule. Under the congressional schedule set in February 2012, the six experimental locations were supposed to named by August 2012 and the road map was due in February 2013.

The legislation called for drones to be fully integrated into the airspace by September 2015. Huerta insists that the FAA will meet the deadline while working with the Defense Department, NASA and the Department of Homeland Security to integrate drones into the airspace.

"Rest assured, the FAA will fulfill its statutory obligations to integrate unmanned aircraft systems, but we must fulfill those obligations in a thoughtful, careful manner than ensures safety, protects privacy and promotes economic growth," Huerta said.

Faced with skeptical questions, Huerta said the agency would meet the deadline by "demonstrating what safe integration looks like, what its characteristics are, and to have a framework in place and having some initial work ongoing in that area."

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