Publication / DecodeDC/ Scripps
June 13, 2014
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Tired of waiting for a green light, U.S. drone users put FAA warnings to the wind

Commercial drone use still illegal in America

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Japan uses drones to water crops, Germany uses them to stop graffiti artists and in France they are used to film music videos. Within the U.S., though, commercial drone use is still illegal.

Businesses have been waiting impatiently for the Federal Aviation Administration to come out with its promised regulations for drones, or Unmanned Aerial Systems, as the pros call them. But now that the rule looks like it is nowhere close to ready, some people are putting care to the wind and droning away.

“The [FAA] is quickly losing a handle to enforce and regulate UAS,” said Ben Gielow of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. “People are going online and flying them and using them…and if nothing is being done to hold them accountable, that’s just going to embolden them to go out there and fly.”

The reason most illegal UAS users aren’t getting in trouble is largely because the FAA has not yet released a rule determining what UAS are allowed, or not allowed, to do.

According to reports by the Department of Transportation and the Government Accountability Office, the FAA is vastly behind schedule to open up the airspace for drone or Unmanned Aerial Systems use in the U.S. Although Congress mandated a 2015 deadline back in 2012, of the 17 UAS initiatives the FAA laid out in its timeline, DOT found that only eight were completed and not a single one on time.

“While FAA has made progress meeting the act’s UAS provisions, it has determined that it will not meet the September 2015 deadline for UAS integration due to a series of complex technological, regulatory and managerial barriers,” said Calvin Scovel, DOT inspector general, at a House hearing.

The U.S. government has been slow to embrace drone technology and now the FAA is finding itself playing catch up.

“The industry is poised to take off but until the FAA writes the safety rules, it can’t,” said Gielow. “For every day the FAA delays the rule, that’s going to cost the U.S. economy 27 million dollars. Agriculture is going to be 80 percent of the future market. So that’s going to be the biggest loser (from the delay).”

According to a 2013 economic report by AUVSI, which obviously has a vested interest, UAS could help the U.S. produce up to 100,000 new jobs and add $82 billion in economic activity between 2015 and 2025.

Because of the potential profit and the ready access to purchasing a UAS on the internet, some companies and individuals are finding it hard to withhold from using the technology—even if there might be legal repercussions.

Robert Blair, a wheat and barley farmer has been using drones he’s built himself on his land for years. It could get him in trouble with the FAA but Blair figures that the benefits of using them outweigh the risks. He even writes about his trials on his blog the Unmanned Farmer.

The reality is that drone use like Blair’s is probably illegal according to the FAA, but the administration has a hard time proving that the drones they see flying are being used commercially (not legal), instead of recreationally (legal). Actually, according to Gielow, it’s largely media stories and social media postings that bring illegal use to the FAA’s attention.

A recent court ruling is now also putting pressure on the FAA to prove that it has the authority to label UAS use illegal.

In March a judge ruled in favor of defendant Raphael Pirker who was taken to trial by the FAA for flying a UAS. The judge found that the FAA can’t punish a person for flying a UAS illegally when the administration has yet to write an official rule making the action illegal.

The ruling effectively opened up the door for wannabe drone users who now view the case as a green-light to fly.

“The bulk of folks have been unknowingly operating the systems against FAA regulations,” Gielow said. “Other folks know and have been tracking this Pirker decision and don’t think the FAA has the ability or manpower to go after every user, especially if they fly under the radar.  And if they are caught, they think they can challenge it and get away with it in court.”

In an effort to take some of the pressure off, the FAA is considering offering some exemptions to commercial industries. Last week they gave the first Okay to BP to use drones to conduct surveys in Alaska, and the administration is also considering giving the same break to Hollywood filmmakers.

The rule writing, of course, is likely to drone on and on.

Gielow of AUVSI says the exemptions don’t take away from the weight of the final rule, which he says will finally make UAS legitimate in the country.

“We are probably the only industry that is begging the government to regulate us, because the industry can’t take off if it doesn’t regulate us,” he said.

No new deadline has been announced by the FAA for its UAS rule. So for now companies and groups hoping to utilize UAS are stuck in a limbo between waiting to legally fly and making money right now.