U.S. commercial drone industry struggles to take off

State laws and a slow-moving FAA are stifling early growth, trade group says

The U.S. commercial drone industry is still struggling to get off the ground more than two years after President Obama signed into law a bill that permits the civilian use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) over the country's airspace.

Critics say a growing number of state level anti-drone measures as well as a continuing lack of federal aviation rules for operating civilian drones are to blame for the slow start to the industry.

The Federal Aviation Administration Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 authorizes the FAA to issue licenses for commercial drone use in the U.S. It also requires that the agency draft rules governing the use of civilian drones by law enforcement agencies and private entities.

The FAA modernization law was widely expected to result in tens of thousands of commercial drones being licensed to fly over U.S. airspace. So far, however, all it has produced is a lot of noise.

Since the law was passed in Feb. 2012, some 43 states have proposed a total of 130 bills and resolutions seeking limits on drone use. A total of 13 states have enacted anti-drone laws while another 11 have adopted resolutions seeking drone use limits.

Most of the legislation was prompted by concerns that UAVs will enable unprecedented privacy and civil rights violations, especially by law enforcement authorities. Privacy and rights groups have consistently harped on how drones with facial recognition cameras, license plate scanners, thermal imaging cameras, open Wi-Fi sniffers and other sensors could be easily used for general public safety surveillance.

Earlier this month, lawmakers in Louisiana and Pennsylvania became the latest to announce proposals seeking to ban the use of UAVs in certain circumstances.

Meanwhile, the FAA itself has yet to come up with any safety and operational rules governing civilian drone use in the country.

Also, the agency has issued just two commercial drone licenses in the U.S, since the law went into effect, according to Ben Gielow, general counsel of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), a drone trade group.

Of that, only one -- issued to energy giant ConocoPhillips -- is being used. Conoco currently operates a 40-pound drone off the North Slope of Alaska to monitor oil pipelines, the movement of icebergs and to perform other maintenance-related monitoring.

The net result is that the U.S. is in danger of falling well behind other parts of the world in the use of drones for commercial applications, Gielow said.

In Europe and elsewhere, small UAVs, of the sort proposed in the U.S, are increasingly being used in a wide range of applications including land management, crop monitoring, traffic management, real estate sales and news reporting. Even extremely privacy-friendly countries like Germany have permitted widespread use of UAVs in commercial applications, Gielow said.

Aerospace research company Teal Group estimates that sales of military and civilian drones will total over $89 billion in the next 10 years.

Drone use in the U.S., meanwhile, continues to be bogged down by misperceptions and overblown fears over privacy and security, he said.

Many of those opposed to commercial UAVs tend to think of them as military drones rather than the relatively small and lightweight vehicles that they are.

As a result, lawmakers want to impose new search warrant requirements on drone use even though no such requirements apply to the use of other aviation assets by law enforcement, Gielow said. Other proposed laws seek to restrict drone operators from flying over private property of capturing images of people and private property without their explicit permission despite current statutes that already prohibit such actions.

"This is a big data issue. It has nothing to do with the platform," that is used to collect the data, Gielow said. The same privacy and security restrictions that apply to the use of data collected by other means apply to data collected by drones, he said.

The mere fact that drones enable a new type of data collection does not mean that data collected by such aircraft is exempt from existing data security and privacy laws. "Things like Peeping Tom laws and stalking and harassment laws are just as applicable to unmanned aircraft as they are to manned aircraft," he said.

By proposing and adopting new anti-drone laws, legislators are trying to curtail drone use even before people have really begun using the technology in the U.S., Giewlow said. "It is like trying to restrict the Internet or the telephone," before giving the technologies a chance to be actually used widely.

The FAA's continued inability to come up with rules for commercial drone use is another problem, he added. The lack of rules makes it harder for the FAA to claim authority over civilian drone use in the U.S., according to Gielow.

Earlier this year for instance, the FAA attempted to fine an individual $10,000 for using a drone to capture promotional video. The FAA claimed the individual had used the drone in a dangerous and reckless manner.

However, an administrative judge from the National Transportation Safety Board, struck down the fine on appeal noting that the FAA could not enforce rules for civilian drones that don't exist.

"Clearly, we have a lot more work to do," Gielow said. Many of the laws being passed or proposed are based on very little real information, he claimed. "Education is going to be key, but it is tough to educate people about drones if they are not being used," he said.

A spokeswoman from the FAA Wednesday said that one of the top priorities of the FAA Administrator is to publish rules for small UAVs later this year.

"The rulemaking is very complex and we want to ensure that we strike the right balance of requirements for small [drones] to help foster growth in this emerging industry," the spokeswoman said in an email. The FAA's task is to figure out how to integrate drones safely into the busiest, most complex airspace in the world, she said.

"We are having regular conversations with a few distinct industries to see if we can expand authorized commercial operations for limited applications in very controlled environments."

Jaikumar Vijayan covers data security and privacy issues, financial services security and e-voting for Computerworld. Follow Jaikumar on Twitter at @jaivijayan or subscribe to Jaikumar's RSS feed. His e-mail address is jvijayan@computerworld.com.

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