- The Washington Times - Monday, February 16, 2015

The Obama administration’s proposed new rule for commercial drone flights would ground much of the unmanned aircraft industry and may leave the U.S. trailing behind international competitors, analysts and some lawmakers fear.

Drone industry leaders hope Congress will nudge the Federal Aviation Administration forward after this weekend’s long-awaited proposal, and some on Capitol Hill already appear open to changing the strict FAA rules.

The regulations, among other things, prohibit the use of commercial drones outside the line of sight of the pilot, meaning some ambitious ideas — such as Amazon’s desire to deliver packages via drone — would not be not viable. The FAA’s draft proposal, released Sunday, also would outlaw flying drones “over any persons not directly involved in the operation,” a provision that amounts to a de facto ban on using drones for news coverage and a host of other activities.

If the administration’s true goal is to keep the U.S. at the forefront of aviation, the regulatory structure as currently written isn’t acceptable, analysts say.

“That can’t work,” Michael Drobac, executive director of the Small Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Coalition, said of the FAA’s approach, particularly the measure prohibiting flights above anyone not involved with the operation.

“It really is so far behind where other countries are. … It’s not progressive enough,” said Mr. Drobac, whose coalition includes leading technology companies.

The FAA rules would apply to drones weighing less than 55 pounds and being used for non-recreational activity, such as commercial use by private companies. Business interests as varied as real estate developers, film producers and farmers have all expressed a keen interest in the commercial possibilities of advanced drones.

The regulations require all drone operators be at least 17 years old, pass an aeronautical knowledge test and get an operator’s certificate from the agency. Drones also could not exceed an altitude of 500 feet or a speed of 100 mph, nor could they fly over populated areas or restricted airspace, such as airports.

An incident late last month when an out-of-control private drone crashed on the White House grounds only highlighted fears of allowing commercial drones to operate without well-defined regulations.

FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said the agency tried to be “flexible” with its approach, but key lawmakers say certain aspects of the proposal are too limiting.

“These FAA rules are a solid first step but need a lot more refining,” Sen. Chuck Schumer, New York Democrat, told the USA Today. “The inclusion of the rule that drones must be flown within the operator’s line of sight appears to be a concerning limitation on commercial usage. I urge the FAA to modify that as these rules are finalized.”

In the House, Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster, Pennsylvania Republican, said it’s critical that the FAA listen to the concerns of the drone industry and others as it finalizes the rules, which will be open to public comment for the next 60 days.

“We need to properly balance safety, privacy and access while ensuring the United States remains at the forefront of aviation technology,” he said in a statement. “As we continue to review this proposal and as the FAA finalizes the rule, I look forward to hearing reactions and input from all stakeholders.”

Meanwhile, other nations already are far ahead of the U.S. in allowing private companies to use drones. Canada, for example, also has line-of-sight provisions but does not require operators’ certificates, provided the craft in question weighs less than 55 pounds.

Analysts say some European countries, Australia and other nations also have more flexible regulatory systems and, as a result, are better positioned than the U.S. to reap the economic benefits of a thriving commercial drone industry.

Still, after falling far behind a congressionally mandated schedule to integrate drones into the national airspace by September, the FAA is being applauded for finally taking the crucial step of proposing formal rules.

“I think this is a good time to be calm and know the FAA is truly trying,” Mr. Drobac said.

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