Unmanned aircraft systems are at an exciting and pivotal stage. Just as smartphones and tablets revolutionized our economy over the past decade, UAS are transforming the way a number of industries operate, and are creating several new ones as well. UAS is also benefitting small businesses, which many already are deploying the technology to improve their existing services and extend their capabilities. 

As president and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, the world’s largest non-profit organization devoted exclusively to advancing the unmanned systems and robotics community, I have seen firsthand the many innovative ways that UAS are increasing human potential. Our more than 7,500 members have developed systems that can be used for a multitude of applications ranging from spraying crops to delivering packages to responding to natural disasters, such as the recent Nepal earthquake. 

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Earlier this year, the Federal Aviation Administration published its long-awaited proposed rules for the commercial and civil operations of small UAS that weigh 55 pounds or less. These proposed rules are a critical milestone in the process of integrating UAS into the U.S. National Airspace System and bring us closer to realizing the tremendous social and economic benefits this technology offers.  

Already, many companies — the vast majority of which are small businesses — are taking advantage of UAS technology. More than 700 businesses have received permission to fly UAS commercially since May 2014, when the FAA announced it would consider granting exemptions for certain low-risk commercial UAS applications under Section 333 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012. The approved exemption requests range from companies looking to conduct aerial inspections of pipelines and bridges to farmers surveying their fields to filmmakers looking for a new perspective. 

This flood of commercial requests to the FAA shows that a mature UAS commercial market is waiting to be unleashed. In the first decade following integration into the NAS, the UAS industry is expected to create 100,000 jobs and $82 billion in economic impact. With the right regulatory environment, there’s no question that these numbers could go even higher. But the longer we take, the more our nation risks losing its innovation edge along with the billions of dollars of economic impact. 

Although the FAA continues to approve about 50 new commercial applications each week, this current system of case-by-case approvals isn’t a long-term solution for the many businesses, both small and large, wanting to fly. In addition, the requirements are much greater under this exemption process than the ones being considered in the draft UAS rules. For instance, a photographer shouldn’t have to learn how to land a 2,000-pound Cessna to fly a four-pound UAS to take pictures at a wedding.  

Congress also needs to pass — and the president needs to sign into law — an FAA reauthorization measure before the current authorization expires on September 30, 2015. Reauthorization is the most immediate way to achieve the necessary steps to encourage innovation and ensure the continued safety of the NAS while accelerating the commercial use of UAS. Equally as important, government and industry need to work together to permit expanded uses of UAS technology that pose no additional risk to the NAS, such as beyond-visual-line-of-sight, nighttime operations and operations over heavily populated areas. Not doing so risks stunting a still-nascent industry and restricting many of the beneficial ways that businesses could use UAS, such as in search-and-rescue operations.

UAS technology is developing rapidly, and the next innovative use may be just around the corner. So, we should do all we can to support the growth and development of this industry. And, we need to make sure that the FAA adopts the proper framework to keep up with this technology and allow small businesses across the country to easily extend their capabilities and improve their services with UAS. 

Wynne is president and CEO of AUVSI.