Frustrated commercial drone companies say the Obama administration is falling further and further behind in meeting congressional demands to clear the path for full integration into American airspace by 2015. Billions of dollars of investments as well as commercial applications for drones could be caught up in the delay, they warn.
The Federal Aviation Administration is now citing "privacy issues" associated with drones as the reason for the delay. The agency appears likely to miss its self-imposed Dec. 31 deadline to choose six sites in states throughout the country where the unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) would be put through a battery of safety and other tests before full commercialization would be allowed.
Industry leaders argue that the FAA has missed the mark by focusing too much on the privacy and Fourth Amendment concerns associated with drones, and instead should return to its core mission of maintaining safety in the nation's skies.
"Congress had the foresight to lay out a multiyear timetable for the integration of [drones], so all stakeholders would have time to work collaboratively to advance this technology in a safe and responsible manner," said a joint statement Wednesday by Peter Bale, chairman of the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, and Michael Toscano, the association's president. Their organization is the drone industry's leading trade group and has spearheaded putting pressure on the administration to speed up its drone study and review process, citing the economic benefits and technological progress tied to the expansion of domestic UAV use.
"The FAA should adhere to the will of Congress as well as focus on the agency's stated mission of providing the safest, most efficient aerospace system in the world," Mr. Bale and Mr. Toscano said. "We request the FAA to immediately announce its [drone] test-site selection process."
Members of Congress, led by the chairmen of the House Unmanned Systems Caucus — Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon, California Republican, and Rep. Henry Cuellar, Texas Democrat — have voiced similar concerns while urging the FAA to act. Responding to those concerns in a letter last month, acting FAA Administrator Michael P. Huerta cast fresh doubt on whether his agency will achieve its goal of choosing the test sites by the end of this year, despite intense interest from states wanting to host the sites.
"Increasing the use of [drones] in our airspace also raises privacy issues, and these issues will need to be addressed as unmanned aircraft are safely integrated," Mr. Huerta said. "The FAA will complete its statutory obligations. However, we must fulfill those obligations in a thoughtful, prudent manner that ensures safety, addresses privacy issues and promotes economic growth."
Integrating the skies
The FAA, in conjunction with NASA and other federal agencies, has been charged by Congress with developing a comprehensive plan to integrate commercial drones into the nation's crowded airspace. Drones are now available only to the military, law enforcement and other government agencies, but will be open for private and commercial use no later than September 2015.
It is already legal to own and fly a drone — they are sold in several stores and online — but they cannot be used for any commercial purposes. Many industries, including the media, agriculture, real estate and others, are expected to be among the drone industry's most eager customers. Reports in recent days said celebrity news and gossip leader TMZ applied for a drone permit for use in following the activities of its targets, though the media site and the FAA have denied those rumors.
By 2015, TMZ and virtually anyone else can apply for UAV permits and then use the craft — some now as small as a housefly — to take photos, shoot video, conduct research, provide security surveillance or for other means. To prepare for that integration, Congress in February passed the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, which instructed the agency to choose six testing locations where drones will be studied extensively.
The sites will become the primary testing grounds to learn how UAVs react in varying weather conditions, at different altitudes and in conjunction with other users of the nation's airspace. Such research is considered critical to ensuring that drones can share the skies safely with traditional aircraft such as planes and helicopters.
At least 30 states — including Virginia and Maryland — have expressed interest in hosting those locations because the influx of government and high-tech industry personnel is expected to provide an economic shot in the arm.
The legislation states that the FAA was to "establish" the program no later than Aug. 12, or 180 days after the bill was passed.
The agency maintains that it complied with that order in March by technically launching the effort and beginning to solicit public comments.
"The 2012 reauthorization directs the FAA to establish the program within 180 days, which the agency did," the FAA said in a statement Thursday to The Washington Times. "The FAA is continuing to work diligently on the test-site solicitation."
But the true intent of Congress is now in question. Representatives of the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International and others say lawmakers' instruction that the program be "established" means the FAA was to have the six test sites selected within 180 days. A congressional staffer also told The Times on Friday that the "FAA may be misinterpreting the intent of the provision" and that the authors of the legislation meant for the test-site program to be fully up and running within 180 days, or Aug. 12.
A September report from the Government Accountability Office also implies that the FAA has not complied with the act entirely.
"FAA has taken steps to develop, but has not yet established, a program to integrate [drones] at six test ranges, as required by the 2012 act," the GAO study reads in part.
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