By Brian Wynne As lawmakers race out of town this August, the unmanned aircraft systems industry is left holding its breath. The Federal Aviation Administration is still working on finalizing its long overdue small UAS rules and Congress still hasn’t introduced an FAA reauthorization measure (the current one expires at the end of September). If this industry is literally going to get off the ground, we need Washington to make these items top priorities.
And there is strong evidence that a burgeoning UAS market is waiting to be unleashed. The flood of commercial exemption requests the FAA has received illustrate the sweeping impact that UAS are already having on American industries. In May 2014, 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. Since then, the agency has received more than 2,200 petitions and approved more than 900.
The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) recently examined the first 500 approved petitions. It’s clear from our report that UAS are transforming the way a number of industries operate, and are creating several new ones as well.
Take, for example, realtor Douglas Trudeau. Based in Tucson, Ariz., Trudeau was the first Realtor to apply for, and receive, a Section 333 waiver from the FAA to use UAS in his real estate business. A Realtor for 15 years, Mr. Trudeau saw an opportunity to capture unique aerial perspectives for his listings – images that he couldn’t obtain from the ground. Mr. Trudeau now offers a how-to guide on his website for other real estate agents interested in applying for exemptions, and he is also a sought-after speaker. Since Mr. Trudeau received his exemption in January this year, the FAA has issued waivers to more than 200 real estate-related companies, according to the National Association of Realtors.
Real estate is only one industry taking advantage of this new technology. According our report, more than 20 industries have received FAA exemptions to operate UAS commercially in the U.S. national airspace. Out of all of these industries, more than 80 percent of them are small businesses, with the majority coming from real-estate, construction, and agriculture. The report also finds that exemptions have been approved in 48 states, with California leading the way with 70, followed by Texas with 46 and Florida with 40.
While some businesses have successfully navigated the complex Section 333 process, the FAA needs to finalize the rules as quickly as possible. 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. Additionally, 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 of 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 nation’s airspace 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 nation’s airspace, 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.
It’s not just the many uses of this technology that are at stake, but also the 100,000 jobs and $82 billion in economic impact that the UAS industry is expected to create in its first decade following integration. With the right regulatory environment, there’s no question that these numbers could go even higher. The FAA exemptions are proof of this. But the longer we take, the more our nation risks losing its innovation edge along with the billions of dollars of economic impact.
Brian Wynne is president and CEO of AUVSI.