Businesses are innovating with drones — government must keep up
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 Just one year after the Federal Aviation Administration’s small-unmanned aircraft systems rule went into effect, U.S. companies are quickly adopting these systems, commonly called drones. They are helping farmers in California spray vineyards, allowing cell tower inspectors in the Carolinas to assess damage after floods, tracking wildlife in Alaska and more.

However, that is just scratching the surface of what businesses can accomplish with unmanned aircraft systems. The FAA and Congress should do all they can to foster this spirit of innovation by establishing policies that will enable the full potential of the technology.

Since Aug. 29, 2016, the small unmanned aircraft systems rule, also known as Part 107 of the Federal Aviation Regulations, has allowed anyone who follows the rule and the operations it permits to fly drones for civil, commercial and recreational purposes in the United States.

 

Prior to the implementation of Part 107, businesses had to individually ask the FAA for permission to fly — and over 5,500 did. Now that there is a regulatory framework in place, over 85,000 drones are registered with the FAA for civil and commercial use. The FAA expects more than 400,000 civil and commercial drones could be flying over the next five years — a five-fold increase from today.

As more businesses adopt drones systems, they are looking to expand the types of operations they can perform. Fortunately, the rule also established a waiver process for businesses to request the FAA to fly outside of the operations permitted in Part 107, as long as they demonstrate it can be done safely. Over 1,000 businesses in 47 states have seized this opportunity to go above and beyond. Waivers are allowing businesses to fly at night, beyond the operator’s line of sight, operate multiple drones at once and fly platforms weighing over 55 pounds. For instance, CNN is now operating drones over crowds of people to capture new perspectives on breaking news, and Intel dazzled Super Bowl viewers with aerial light shows, operating 300 unmanned aircraft at a time.

But it isn’t just large companies innovating with drones — about 85 percent of waivers have been granted to small businesses. For example, a professional photographer in San Jose can now take compelling images of Northern California at night, and a Louisiana-based surveying company can now launch drones from moving vehicles to conduct surveys more efficiently. 

Demand for the waivers demonstrates that we are at the dawn of a new American renaissance in aviation and technology, one that deserves government attention and support to help it reach its full potential.

It’s time that the U.S. government sets out rules for expanded operations of unmanned aircraft systems, such as those already being conducted safely with waivers. Once drones are further integrated into the national airspace, America stands to reap the benefits. In fact, my organization, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International forecasts that the industry will create more than 100,000 jobs and over $82 billion in economic impact. Under an expanded regulatory environment, there’s no question these numbers will go even higher.

The FAA reauthorization now under consideration by Congress lays the groundwork for expanded operations, but there is more work to be done. First, the FAA must be appropriately funded and empowered to engage meaningfully alongside industry stakeholders.

Government should also encourage policies that are necessary for expanded operations, such as a coordinated spectrum policy and the development of an unmanned aircraft systems traffic management system. And continued industry-government collaboration, such as the Aviation Rulemaking Committee that is currently meeting to develop remote identification standards for drones, is also necessary to lead us towards common-sense solutions that benefit companies across the nation.

Industry is bringing the technology — government needs to do more to support it and advance innovations to address the complex issues associated with unmanned aircraft systems. By continuing to advance a positive regulatory environment, Congress and the FAA can allow companies to aim higher and take full advantage of the technology that is available to them. Only then will U.S. skies truly be open for business.

Brian Wynne is the president and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI). AUVSI is the largest trade association for the unmanned systems and robotics industry, including drones.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.