In another small, but promising step toward the adoption of commercial drones in the US, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has granted exemptions to four companies that clear their unmanned aircraft systems for takeoff.
The FAA has faced mounting pressure to redraft the strict laws that ban drone use in commercial operations. In attempting to balance the safety of US airspace with the largely untapped potential of unmanned aerial vehicles, the FAA was ordered by Congress to write new laws for commercial drones by September 2015.
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A congressional hearing this week revealed that this deadline is unlikely to be met, with the FAA claiming it needs until at least 2017 to safely integrate commercial drones with national airspace.
We have lift-off
In the meantime, the agency has been handing out discretionary permits to a handful of companies. The first tranche, announced back in September, granted six Hollywood studios permission to use drones in film production. These included conditions that all operators hold pilot certificates, the drone be subject to inspection before use and only be flown within line of sight.
Announced this week, the latest round sees a further four companies given the green light. Trimble Navigation Limited, VDOS Global, LLC, Clayco, Inc and Woolpert, Inc. will all begin using drones for operations described as aerial surveying, construction site monitoring and oil rig flare stack inspections. Their applications stipulated that the drones will weigh less than 55 lb (25 kg) and will be flown within sight at all times.
"Unmanned aircraft offer a tremendous opportunity to spur innovation and economic activity by enabling many businesses to develop better products and services for their customers and the American public," says Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. “We want to foster commercial uses of this exciting technology while taking a responsible approach to the safety of America’s airspace."
The waiting game
While progress is being made, some are growing increasingly impatient with the FAA. In an letter to the agency made public earlier this week, Amazon outlined its frustrations at the agency's unwillingness to grant an exemption for its Prime Air service, which aims to deliver packages to customers within 30 minutes.
The company revealed that the limitations posed by current drone laws have pushed it to develop outdoor testing facilities in other countries. It says this is a necessary step to advance the technology to the point where Amazon Prime Air would constitute a viable service, while also pointing to the potential benefits to the local economy.
"These non-U.S. facilities enable us to quickly build and modify our Prime Air vehicles as we construct new designs and make improvements," the letter reads. "It is our continued desire to also pursue fast-paced innovation in the United States, which would include the creation of high-quality jobs and significant investment in the local community."