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Delayed Drone Rules Frustrate Industry, as Lawmakers Voice Safety Concerns

New proposed rules are expected in the next few weeks as the FAA continues to weighs safety concerns around drones.

Robert Mandel / Shutterstock

Lawmakers raised questions about the safety of allowing unmanned drones to share the skies with commercial aircraft during a hearing Wednesday about the Obama administration’s delayed efforts to craft new safety rules for the industry.

“Safety is paramount and the challenges are difficult,” said Republican Frank LoBiondo of New Jersey, chairman of the House Aviation subcommittee during the hearing. As Congress gets ready for its periodic review of the Federal Aviation Administration next year, lawmakers “will look for substantive improvements in this area,” he said.

FAA officials have struggled with how to write rules for small, unmanned aircraft. No one wants them crashing into people or buildings or, even more alarmingly, passenger or commercial planes. But plenty of companies are itching to use them for photography, remote inspection or delivery services.

Congress told the FAA to have rules in place by next September, but there’s little chance of that happening. FAA officials say it could be 2017 before new rules are established. They haven’t even released draft rules yet. Those are expected to be available in the next few weeks, FAA associate administrator Peggy Gilligan told lawmakers Wednesday.

The Obama administration is expected to call for commercial drone operators to have a pilot’s license, only operate during the day and stay within sight of the person behind the controls, according to a recent report in the Wall Street Journal. The FAA is expecting a flood of comments about the proposed rules when they are finally unveiled.

Delays in new rules and exemptions for companies seeking to use drones commercially right now have frustrated the burgeoning drone industry, which could create upward of 70,000 jobs and have an economic impact of $13 billion, according to the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, the drone industry’s lobbying group.

On Monday, Amazon threatened to move its drone research (and drone-related jobs) offshore unless the FAA quickly approves its testing plans, which were submitted earlier this year. The company is already “utilizing outdoor testing facilities outside the United States,” Amazon said in a letter to FAA officials, adding that, without the ability to test outdoors in the U.S., it “will have no choice but to divert even more of our [drone] research and development resources abroad.”

Asked about Amazon’s complaints by one lawmaker during the hearing, Gilligan said that FAA officials “have worked closely with Amazon” but acknowledged that the online retailing giant is “not satisfied” with the department’s suggestions for how it might test its delivery-by-drone service.

More than 140 applications by commercial companies seeking exemptions to use drones for commercial operations are backed up at the FCC, according to a new Government Accountability Office report released Wednesday.

FAA officials have provided a handful of exemptions to filmmakers to use drones for filming scenes. The department announced it had approved another five applications shortly before House lawmakers launched their hearing this morning. The FAA will allow four companies to do aerial surveying, construction site monitoring or inspections of oil rigs.

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