LAS VEGAS — For the Federal Aviation Administration, regulating the skies is about to get much more complicated.
The FAA's acting administrator, Michael P. Huerta, told drone industry leaders gathered in Las Vegas on Tuesday that the agency is poised to "realign" itself to prepare for the coming explosion of unmanned aerial vehicles.
They're now available only to military and law enforcement, but the FAA will begin granting personal and commercial licenses in 2015. It estimates that there could be as many as 30,000 drones flying above the U.S. by 2020.
"We need to change the way we do business," said Mr. Huerta, who oversees the agency's 47,000 employees and $16 billion budget. "We've looked ahead over a decade out and we know where we want to be in 2025, but the FAA's internal structures were created when the agency was formed 50 years ago. We know we need to realign."
While speaking frankly about the daunting challenges confronting the FAA, Mr. Huerta assured the drone sector -- posited to become a multibillion-dollar business within the next few years, analysts say -- that the FAA won't stand in the way of technological development and will help promote the new crafts as the next generation of flying machines.
"We are going to allow new ideas to soar to their potential," he said. "Our goal is to safely and efficiently integrate unmanned systems into our airspace ... Building new technology is one thing, but building human consensus on a path forward for our aviation systems is an equally important task and unbelievably complicated. There's a lot of work that has to be done, but I am very optimistic that we'll get there."
The agency's path forward was laid out earlier this year when President Obama signed the FAA's reauthorization bill. By the end of this year, the FAA has been mandated to establish six unmanned aerial vehicle systems across the nation. By February of next year, it was must release a five-year road map on how it plans to integrate drones into airspace already congested with planes and helicopters.
In August 2014, the agency will release final rules regulating drones, and a year later will begin issuing permits.
In the interim, the FAA must resolve several outstanding questions, including: Will separate airspace be established specifically for unmanned aerial vehicles? How will the agency ensure personal privacy is protected? What limits will be placed on personal drone use?
Sector leaders eagerly await answers to those questions and many others.
"This industry has only been noticed by the FAA in recent years. They're just starting the regulation process," said Gretchen West, executive vice president of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), the industry's largest trade group and host of this week's conference.
Analysts predict that, within the next decade or perhaps even sooner, businesses will begin taking advantage of drone technology to help cut costs and become more efficient. The CEO of FedEx, for example, has said he's interested in using unmanned cargo planes.
Eventually, commercial airlines could take a similar path, but only after the FAA has the proper safety regulations in place, specialists say.
"Who wants to be the first passenger on a pilot-less aircraft?" said Brig. Gen. William R. Burks, Nevada's adjutant general, adding that the public likely will be afraid of unmanned passenger vehicles and other crafts until they're proven to be entirely safe.
"Once people see them flying, they will be accepted as the norm," he said. "It doesn't matter if [drones] are inspecting power lines, hauling cargo, tracking livestock or any of the other uses that are out there. This technology is here to stay and it will only grow in size and application ... eventually people will feel comfortable" with it.
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