- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Obama administration on Wednesday granted five new permits allowing private companies to fly drones in U.S. airspace for oil rig monitoring, aerial surveying and other purposes.

The approvals, announced by the Federal Aviation Administration, are the latest examples of a case-by-case approach to the integration of drones, also known as unmanned aerial systems (UAS). Rather than develop broad rules that can apply to any commercial entity seeking to use drones — as Congress intended — the administration seemingly is picking and choosing which companies get the green light, drawing criticism from industry leaders who want to see a more comprehensive approach.

“While this is a positive step, granting exemptions on a case by case basis is not an effective way to regulate the use of UAS in the long term,” said Michael Toscano, president and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, the drone industry’s leading trade group. “The FAA needs to begin the rule-making process and finalize a rule for the use of UAS as quickly as possible to allow UAS technology to realize its full potential and allow a wide range of industries to reap its benefits.”

The five permits, granted to four companies, technically are “exemptions” from current FAA regulations prohibiting the use of drones in domestic airspace for commercial purposes. The FAA already has granted seven exemptions to film and video-production companies.

As of Wednesday, at least 167 requests for exemptions have been filed with the administration, officials said.

Administration officials say they’re taking a cautious approach as they integrate drones into the nation’s already crowded airspace.

“Unmanned aircraft offer a tremendous opportunity to spur innovation and economic activity by enabling many businesses to develop better products and services for their customers and the American public,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a statement. “We want to foster commercial uses of this exciting technology while taking a responsible approach to the safety of America’s airspace.”

But some lawmakers have grown frustrated with the administration’s slow process.

Legislation passed in 2012 directed the FAA to craft rules for drone integration by September 2015, though it appears that deadline may be missed.

The FAA also was 14 months late in establishing six test ranges where drones will undergo a battery of tests, according to the congressionally mandated timetable. The six sites now are up and running.

Still, some on Capitol Hill believe the U.S. its losing its global edge in the aviation industry by failing to move faster on drone integration, as other nations already are far ahead on commercial UAS flights.

“It also concerns me that road builders in Germany and farmers in France today are enjoying economic benefits from UAS because safety regulators there have found ways to permit such flights. I can’t help but wonder that if the Germans, French and Canadians can do some of these things today, then why can’t we also be doing them?” said Rep. Frank LoBiondo, New Jersey Republican and chairman of the House Transportation subcommittee on aviation.

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