More than three years ago, Congress directed the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to integrate unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) into the National Airspace System by September 30, 2015. That deadline has now come and gone, and we still don’t have rules that permit UAS to fly commercially in the United States. Meanwhile, American businesses are sitting on the sidelines while our nation risks losing its innovation edge and billions in economic impact. 

The UAS industry is poised to be one of the fastest growing in American history. During the first decade following UAS integration, the industry will create more than 100,000 jobs and provide more than $82 billion in economic impact, according to the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI). With the right regulatory environment, there’s no question these numbers could go higher. But with each passing day that commercial integration is delayed, the U.S. continues to fall behind. 

ADVERTISEMENT

Until the FAA finalizes rules – starting with regulations for small UAS – the primary way commercial operators may fly is through an exemption. Since that process started in May 2014, the FAA has received more than 3,000 requests and granted more than 1,600 exemptions. According to AUVSI’s report on the first 1,000 exemptions, businesses in more than 25 industries representing more than 600,000 jobs and $500 billion in economic impact now are using UAS technology.  

From inspecting bridges and power lines to filming movies and supporting first responders, these exemptions prove that the applications of UAS are virtually limitless and enable public agencies and businesses to work safer and more cost effectively. At the same time, these exemptions demonstrate the pent-up demand for commercial UAS operations and the immediate need for a regulatory framework. 

The lack of clear regulations isn’t just limiting the economic potential of this industry; it’s also causing states and municipalities to fill the void with proposed laws that they may not have the authority to enforce.  The U.S. Code makes it clear: “The United States Government has exclusive sovereignty of airspace of the United States.” The FAA needs to assert its authority over the national airspace and finalize the small UAS rules to bring greater clarity to, and awareness of, the policies governing UAS. 

Indeed, the small UAS rules will also help increase the safety of the airspace. They will provide the necessary tools and training to create a culture of safety around the use of UAS. As more commercial UAS operators are certified, they’ll join the long-standing aviation community, which I’ve been part of for more than 20 years as an instrument-rated general aviation pilot. They will foster the aviation community’s principles of airmanship and self-policing to promote safety and discourage careless and reckless operations.               

And because safety is essential for all users of the national airspace, AUVSI, in partnership with the Academy of Model Aeronautics and the FAA, developed the Know Before You Fly campaign last year to educate newcomers to UAS, many of whom have no aviation experience, about where they should and shouldn’t fly. Anyone considering buying or flying a drone should visit www.knowbeforeyoufly.org to understand these guidelines. The campaign also provides safety brochures for UAS manufacturers and distributors to include in product packaging.  

Unmanned aircraft technology is developing rapidly and the next innovative use may be just around the corner. But the longer the FAA takes, the more our nation falls behind. I urge the FAA to use all available means to finalize the small UAS rules immediately and without any further delays.

Wynne is president and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI).