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FAA ‘committed’ to approval of drones, but a lot has to be figured out first

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From farmers to filmmakers, a host of American industries eagerly await the opportunity to take advantage of drones.

But the slow wheels of Washington could slow the job creation, economic impact and technological advances offered by the unmanned craft. The Federal Aviation Administration has been charged by Congress to integrate commercial drones into U.S. airspace by September 2015 — a goal that looks less realistic each day.

"I'm confident that they're working diligently. I'm not confident they will meet all the deadlines," said Rep. Michael R. Turner, Ohio Republican, who on Wednesday toured the showroom at the drone industry's annual convention, held this year at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in the District.

"Deadlines have slipped before. But I do think that we have full commitment from the FAA," Mr. Turner added.

For its part, the federal government admits the task of working drones into national airspace is a painstaking process.

As part of its integration mission, the FAA is working on rules and regulations to govern "small" unmanned aerial vehicles, defined as craft weighing less than 55 pounds.

Industry leaders had hoped to have already seen those rules, but they continue to wait.

"The small [drone] rule is one that we're committed to getting done. Given the topic and given some of the questions that have come up, it has taken more time than we would like it to have," said John Porcari, U.S. deputy secretary of transportation, who addressed conventiongoers in a keynote speech Wednesday morning. The Transportation Department oversees the FAA.

"But we believe strongly it's a rule that makes sense. It's one that we've been working closely with industry on and we're confident we'll be out there fairly shortly with that," he said.

By the end of the year, the FAA also plans to name six drone "test sites," where the craft will be put through a battery of tests to determine how they perform in a variety of conditions. Two dozen states are angling to host one of the sites.

In last year's FAA funding bill, Congress mandated that the test site program be established and fully operational before commercial drone licenses are granted on a large-scale basis.

Current law, however, does allow the FAA to grant commercial licenses on a case-by-case basis, and the agency two weeks ago issued "restricted category type certificates" to a pair of unmanned systems.

One of those systems, operated by energy giant ConocoPhillips, will be used to track whales and conduct other missions in the Arctic.

Operating a drone in the largely empty skies above the Arctic is far different than flying them near major U.S. cities, but FAA officials still think the flights will be beneficial.

"We think we're going to learn a lot," said Jim Williams, who heads the FAA's Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Office. Mr. Williams also addressed the conference earlier this week.

Beyond the most pressing issues — such as ensuring drones don't collide with each other or get too close to planes and helicopters — are other, less obvious, concerns.

How much insurance drone operators will need, for example, is an open question.

"What type of bodily injury can they cause? Are they going to decapitate somebody or are they going to cause some stitches?" said Terry Miller, president of the aviation insurance company Transport Risk Management, said Wednesday. "We need to find out. Do we need $1 million of liability coverage or do we need $100 million of liability coverage? It all depends on the vehicle, and we're relying on the industry and manufacturers to help teach us that."

As those questions are sorted out, state officials and others wait for the inevitable day when drones transform the U.S. economy and fuel job creation.

"This is a rapidly emerging new industry whose applications are going to affect practically every major economic sector of Florida," said Frank DiBello, president and CEO of Space Florida, the state's aerospace economic development organization.

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