- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 24, 2014

By Christmas afternoon, thousands more drones will be in American skies — but the federal government fears operators of the increasingly small, cheap craft simply don’t know what they’re doing and could cause aerial catastrophes.

The Federal Aviation Administration joined with drone industry groups and others this week to launch a safety initiative aimed at unmanned aerial systems, which have become one of the hottest holiday gifts this season, according to companies such as Amazon and Best Buy.

Once identified only as huge, multimillion-dollar military weapons, drones also have become 21st-century toys, some of which cost as little as $20.

The low cost and relatively simple operation make drones appealing gifts for tech junkies, teenagers and others.

“Over the next five days or so, you’re going to have tens of thousands of 10-year-old to 90-year-old people that are going to have this capability, being exposed to it. And we want to make sure they understand how to use it in a safe and responsible way,” said Michael Toscano, president and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, the drone industry’s largest trade group.

The association, the FAA, the Academy of Model Aeronautics and other organizations this week launched the website KnowBeforeYouFly.com, which contains information on federal regulations and safety guidelines for operating the craft.

It is against FAA guidelines, for example, to fly a drone higher than 400 feet or within 5 miles of an airport.

The campaign also wants drone manufacturers to provide safety information and details on FAA regulations along with the products.

“There are rogue actors out there, or there are some not aware of existing laws and rules, so a campaign like this is absolutely crucial,” said Michael Drobac, executive director of the Small UAV Coalition, a drone advocacy group.

Although it’s difficult to tell just how many drones will be under Christmas trees this year, anecdotal accounts suggest the craft are popular.

Best Buy, crediting rising demand, said it expanded its drone selection from one model last year to eight this year.

Amazon reported that a number of drone models — ranging in price from about $160 to more than $1,000 — have been especially popular this year, according to The Associated Press.

Those accounts are proof, industry leaders say, that drones have officially gone mainstream.

Demand has moved “pretty dramatically out of being a pretty niche field into more of a consumer electronics field,” Michael Perry, spokesman for drone manufacturer DJI, told AP.

Worldwide, drone spending is projected to double over the next decade from $6.4 billion annually to $11.5 billion each year, according to research firm the Teal Group.

Drones still will be primarily military craft for the foreseeable future.

This year, militaries account for about 89 percent of the drone market, the Teal Group said in a July research paper. Over the next 10 years, that number is projected to shrink to 86 percent as civil uses for drones — including in the agriculture, energy, media and other sectors of the economy — grow exponentially.

With almost limitless uses, drones present unique challenges for federal regulators charged with safely integrating them into American skies.

There already have been indications of the dangers.

FAA data show that since June 1, airplane pilots have reported more than two dozen near collisions with drones in midair.

“We have to reach out to a broad segment of the population to make sure everyone understands what they should be doing,” FAA Administrator Michael Huerta told reporters this week on a conference call promoting the drone safety campaign.

As the FAA works to educate drone operators, it’s also devising complex, broad regulations to govern 21st-century skies.

In 2012 legislation, Congress charged the agency with fully integrating drones into American airspace by this coming September. It now appears the final drone integration rule won’t be released until 2016, possibly even 2017.

With no official regulations in place, it is technically illegal to operate a drone for commercial purposes. It’s perfectly legal to fly a drone under 400 feet, but strapping a camera to the craft, snapping pictures and selling those pictures is against government regulations.

The FAA has begun to issue commercial drone permits on a case-by-case basis. The agency this month issued five permits to companies for oil rig monitoring, aerial surveying and other purposes.

The FAA also has granted seven permits to film and video production companies. Another 167 requests for permits had been filed with the agency as of Dec. 10.

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