The Federal Aviation Administration is standing in the way of the public's best interest when it comes to commercial drone activities, according to a report commissioned by the agency and published this week.
The problem, as identified by a 14-person brain trust tasked to recommend a better way forward, is that the FAA's rigorous, safety-first approach to approving - and denying - drone missions in the nation's airspace is stifling potentially life-saving technology and allowing the U.S. to lag behind the progress of other countries.
The experts, assembled by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, urged the agency to expedite the approval of commercial drone missions in their report, "Assessing the Risks of Integrating Unmanned Aircraft Systems into the National Airspace System." And time is of the essence with more than half a million commercial drones anticipated by 2020.
In short, the panel of scientists determined that a culture of fear keeps unmanned vehicles from tasks such as inspecting cell phone towers, helping fight fires or monitoring ice conditions in the Arctic, jobs that would otherwise be difficult or dangerous for humans to complete.
As it stands, the FAA requires most drone projects - save for recreational, news media and a few other limited use cases - to obtain waivers, with larger drones facing additional scrutiny because of their size and potential impact on airways. The application process is described by the committee as "onerous" with approvals for drones flying beyond the line of an operator's sight particularly challenging, if not impossible, to obtain.
"Technology is outpacing the existing regulations," said Chris Rittler, CEO of Cape, which makes drone flight software used by police departments.
"Companies can apply for waivers that grant permission to operate outside of current regulations, but the existing approval process is cumbersome and can take three to six months, which is longer than most innovative companies can afford to wait," he said. "One of the primary challenges is that today, waivers are granted on a one-off basis and for individual projects or operations."
The FAA, in a statement, said that it is working to safely accelerate the integration of drones in the nation's airspace.
"The (report's) specific recommendations are aligned with FAA's ongoing efforts, and we see them as an endorsement of our efforts and encouragement to accelerate our efforts particularly in the area of change management," a spokesperson said.
The agency also pointed to its Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Pilot Program, which promises to let 10 approved regions, including San Diego, fly through the waiver process to more rapidly test commercial operations over a three-year period.
Through the program, the city, along with a number of partners such as Cape, will test a variety of applications, including medical specimen delivery, food delivery by drone and cross-border air traffic management.
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