Drone-makers push feds on test flights

Lobbyists for the booming drone industry are pushing the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to stop delaying action on a plan that will open up U.S. skies to unmanned vehicles.

The agency has yet to select six test sites that will be used to gauge the safety of drone flights, despite a mandate to do just that under the FAA reauthorization bill that passed earlier this year. That has led to pressure from the Association of Unmanned Vehicles Systems International (AUVSI) and lawmakers on Capitol Hill to get the process moving.

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Ben Gielow, government-relations manager and general counsel for the trade group, said several states are clamoring to be selected as test sites in hopes of becoming the home base for the drone industry. 

“A lot of states would like their state to be the hub of this industry,” Gielow said. “Ultimately, this is about jobs. This is about innovation.”

The FAA said it is working to select the test sites “as quickly as possible,” but is balancing that with the need to address logistical and privacy concerns.

“The FAA’s chief mission is to ensure the safety and efficiency of the entire aviation system, and the agency is working to ensure the safe integration of unmanned aircraft,” the agency said in a statement that was provided to The Hill. 

“This involves gaining a better understanding of operational issues, such as training requirements, operational specifications and technology considerations,” the FAA statement continued. “Increasing the use of UAS [unmanned aerial systems] in our airspace also raises privacy issues, and these issues will need to be addressed as unmanned aircraft are safely integrated.”

The FAA said it is evaluating proposals to manage the sites that are selected for testing drones, but did not offer a specific timetable for naming the locations.

“Earlier this spring we asked for public input in establishing these sites, and we are evaluating the comments,” the agency said. “We are working to move forward with the proposals for the six test sites as quickly as possible.”

Groups that have raised privacy concerns about unmanned aircraft, such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), said ensuring the safety of a domestic drone program is more important than approving it quickly.

ACLU senior policy analyst Jay Stanley said the organization “did not have a dog in the fight” when it comes to where the FAA conducts the drone tests. But Stanley said the ACLU is pushing to amend the law that authorized the tests to add stronger privacy protections.

“We won’t be happy until privacy protections are put into law or into regulations with the force of law,” Stanley said. “There doesn’t seem to be any sign that they’re going to put the protections into regulations, but we’re heartened to see that they’ve put privacy concerns into the consideration of the testing sites.”

Gielow said his industry association has been meeting with privacy groups. He said their concerns about drones have been addressed.

“We understand that there are unique concerns with unmanned aircraft. Our response is we think a legal framework is already in place with the Fourth Amendment that protects people’s privacy,” Gielow said. “We are concerned that the legislative proposals so far that require a search warrant for every flight go too far. … How would you even get a search warrant and who would you serve it on?”

The unmanned vehicles trade group has only recently gotten into the lobbying game.

AUVSI registered its first lobbyists in 2007 at Arnold & Porter, and by 2011 had decided to hire its own in-house lobbying team. That led to more than a doubling of its lobbying expenditures, having spent $120,000 on lobbying in 2010 compared to $280,000 in 2011, according to lobbying disclosure records.

So far in 2012, the trade group has spent $180,000 lobbying Congress and the administration.

“We ramped up internally and are making advocacy a big foundation of what we are working on,” Gielow said.

It’s a big change from the group’s beginnings as a collection of Air Force officers in Ohio toward the end of the Vietnam War. Now AUVSI represents some of the biggest names in the aerospace field, like defense contractors Northrop Grumman and Raytheon.

There is also strong support in Congress for domestic use of drones. Members have shown their support by joining the Congressional Unmanned Systems Caucus in the House and the Senate Unmanned Aerial Systems Caucus.

Those lawmakers are pushing the FAA to pick up the pace on integrating drones into U.S. airspace. In an Aug. 1 letter to the agency, Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, and eight other House members said the FAA needs to move forward on the site selection process. 

“While I understand and respect the concerns raised over privacy, I firmly believe that those concerns should not restrict the FAA’s ability to move forward with establishing the six UAS integration test sites as required under the FAA reauthorization bill. The mission of the six sites is to conduct research and find ways to safely and effectively integrate UAS,” McKeon said in a statement to The Hill.

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McKeon is also co-chairman of the Unmanned Systems Caucus in the lower chamber. 

Gielow said the demand for drones could be huge once Washington gives the all-clear to unmanned flights. His trade group estimates there are 17,500 law enforcement agencies and 30,000 fire departments in the United State that don’t have an aviation component — all potential buyers for drones.

The group says drones could help police with search and rescue missions, or with grabbing a bird’s-eye view of a fire.

“That goes to show you what the market is,” Gielow said. “If you can offer a small UAS that they can pack into the back of a squad car or a fire truck, and you can train someone to operate it so you don’t need a new pilot, that could be a great aerial asset for public safety.”