Feds miss deadline to legalize drones

Feds miss deadline to legalize drones
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The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has missed a deadline from Congress for legalizing the use of nonmilitary drones in the U.S. 

Lawmakers had required the agency to craft rules for a widespread expansion of drones by Sept. 30 in a 2012 funding bill for the FAA, but the agency has not yet completed the proposed regulations. 

The FAA has approved more than 1,700 individual drone flights, but the agency says it is still not ready to issue a blanket approval for drones to fly alongside commercial airplanes. 

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"In the 2012 FAA reauthorization legislation, Congress told the FAA to come up with a plan for 'safe integration' of [unmanned aircraft systems] by September 30, 2015. Safe integration will be incremental," the agency says in a post on its website about drone "myths." 

The FAA released a proposed set of regulations for allowing a rapid expansion of the use of commercial drones in the U.S., but the agency has not yet signed off on widespread use of the devices. 

The FAA has faced tremendous pressure to approve such an expansion of nonmilitary drone use from companies such as Amazon, who have said the technology can be used to make speedier deliveries. 

Police and other law enforcement groups are also seeking approval to use the technology, and the FAA has investigated several drone incidents that occurred in conjunction with photography at college and professional sporting events.

The FAA has pointed to its approvals of drone flights on a case-by-case basis as evidence of its commitment to allowing more use of the technology. 

"Companies and individuals from a broad spectrum of industries are taking advantage of the Section 333 exemption process," the agency said in a statement when the number of drone flights that were cleared topped 1,000 in August.

"Many of the grants the FAA has issued allow aerial filming for uses such as motion picture production, precision agriculture and real estate photography," the FAA statement continued. "The agency also has issued grants for new and novel approaches to inspecting power distribution towers and wiring, railroad infrastructure and bridges." 

The section of law that allows the FAA to grant drone exemptions gives the Transportation Department the authority to drop a requirement that operators of the technology apply for a certificate of airworthiness normally required for flights that are formally considered an aircraft. 

The definition of drones as aircraft under the FAA's proposed rules has riled recreational operators of the devices who consider themselves hobbyists, not pilots. 

The FAA’s rules define small drones as devices that weigh less than 55 pounds and require them to be operated at heights that are less than 500 feet and at speeds that are less than 100 miles per hour.

Regulations also call for drone flights to be limited to daytime hours and conducted only by U.S. residents who are older than 17. 

Drone advocates have complained that the exemptions the FAA is issuing for the devices are less effective than finalizing the rules for a widespread expansion 

"The absence of federal regulations means many businesses remain grounded until the rules are put in place," Unmanned Vehicle Systems International President Brian Wynne said during a Sept. 10 House hearing on the pending regulations. 

"The current system of case-by-case approvals isn’t a long-term solution for the many commercial operators wanting to fly," Wynne continued then.