Unlike Most Industries, Drone Makers and Operators Clamor for Federal Regulation

Unlike Most Industries, Drone Makers and Operators Clamor for Federal Regulation

Leaders seek approval for broader commercial applications, so they buck the trend toward looser government oversight

By Andy Pasztor Sept. 17, 2017 7:00 a.m. ET

Despite White House directives rolling back regulations affecting most industries, drone proponents are clamoring for more federal rules as the way to open up the skies for unmanned aircraft.

The counterintuitive stance stems from the fact that until roughly a year ago, commercial drones effectively were barred from U.S. airspace due to safety concerns. Since then, the Federal Aviation Administration has given limited approvals for small, remotely piloted aircraft weighing up to 55 pounds.

With some exceptions, the initial package of rules permits operations only during daylight hours, up to an altitude of 400 feet and within sight of operators on the ground.

But for many leaders of a budding industry that already has nearly 80,000 registered commercial drones in the U.S. and is projected to have 1.6 million by 2021, progress is too slow because the next wave of rules is still a year or two off. Considering the goal of having a single pilot control a flock of drones from long distance—possibly doing everything from dusting crops to inspecting railroad tracks—they see the FAA’s current boundaries as unduly restrictive.

That is why drone makers, operators and many of their would-be customers are bucking the government-wide trend toward looser oversight. Additional regulations are their sole means of getting a green light for a much broader array of promising uses.

So from packed conferences to congressional hearings to FAA-sponsored advisory committees, these contrarian voices argue that swift federal action is essential for the technology to flourish.

Unlike nearly all other businesses, “we want and need rules and regulations to understand how we can fly drones commercially for expanded operations,” said Gretchen West, senior adviser at the law firm Hogan Lovells US LLP.

While the FAA, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and other agencies struggle with legal, technical and public safety challenges unlike any in the past, industry officials increasingly are frustrated. They worry that a prolonged regulatory stalemate threatens to stifle innovation, sacrifice potential American jobs and hand other countries the lead in evolving market segments.

The status quo will persist “until there are enough [drones] out there pushing the FAA to do something different” and the industry’s prodding “rises to the level of bumping everything else out of the way,” consultant Jim Williams, former head of the agency’s drone office, said during a recent conference.

Responses to Hurricane Harvey’s impact on Texas this month showcased the industry’s potential. The FAA issued more than 125 authorizations spanning various search and rescue missions, bridge inspections, flood monitoring and media flights—some going beyond what had been deemed acceptable under normal circumstances.

FAA chief Michael Huerta described it as a transformative moment, emphasizing that “every drone that flew meant that a traditional aircraft” was freed up to help save lives and “did not put additional strain on an already fragile infrastructure.”

By Friday, more than 130 similar approvals had been granted over storm-ravaged Florida. Working with government rescuers and industry officials, dozens of drone teams are assessing areas most in need of assistance and identifying where electricity needs to be restored—particularly in parts of the state still inaccessible to automotive traffic.

Longer term, drones are seen as important tools to monitor construction, create maps and check for damage to pipelines or the condition of cellular phone towers. Intel Corp. already has permission to use hundreds of tiny drones to put on fully automated light shows as entertainment. And insurance companies increasingly are relying on drones to accelerate processing of homeowner claims.

Mr. Huerta has backed the concept of expanding the envelope for operators. In speeches, he sometimes likens the explosion of ideas and entrepreneurs to the flowering of aviation in the wake of the Wright Brothers’ first flight more than a century ago.

During the largest international drone conference that was held in Las Vegas less than two weeks ago, the FAA chief, who is slated to leave office in January, sketched out his vision of collaboration. Emphasizing that drones are “raising questions we have never had to deal with before,” he said “the only limitation seems to be how quickly all of us, across the industry, can make it happen safely.”

Institutional hurdles remain, however, including the FAA’s congressionally imposed mandate to abide by cost-benefit analyses. Yet when it comes to drones, the benefits of regulation generally aren’t quantifiable in terms of accidents or deaths prevented—traditional metrics that have ushered in the safest period ever for the industry world-wide.

Instead, the upside comes from what the FAA chief and others call broader “enabling regulations,” intended to promote economic growth by paving the way for creation of an entire industry. Some drone champions believe they deserve special dispensation in this regard.

In an interview during the conference, Mr. Huerta said White House officials recognize that distinction and have been “supportive in working with us to find ways to enable this industry.”

Regulators, however, “are walking a tightrope” by serving as “both the policeman and promoter” of the industry, according to private attorney Mark Dombroff, who previously represented the Transportation Department.

Politically, the industry continues to confront additional hurdles. President Donald Trump’s administration has decreed that all agencies typically must eliminate two existing rules for every new regulation they plan to propose. Company and government experts say the FAA overall is struggling to comply, and it may have a particularly tough time issuing certain drone rules unless it gets some type of exemption.

At a White House technology conference this year, Michael Chasen, chief executive of service provider PrecisionHawk, raised that point directly with Mr. Trump. The 2-for-1 principle “doesn’t work for the drone industry,” he recalls telling the president, because today “by default we are not allowed in the airspace.”

Concerns about terrorists or criminals blending in with lawful drone missions also have complicated the FAA’s task.

As a result, draft FAA rules to routinely allow drone flights over crowds or at night are in limbo. Industry experts fret it will take even longer before typical drones will be permitted to operate dozens of miles beyond the sight of operators, or rely on onboard sensors to see and avoid both manned and unmanned aircraft.

Still, some of the biggest players are loath to blast government. “The FAA is really engaging the industry and acknowledging that technology can move faster” under more-flexible regulations, according to Anil Nandury, general manager of Intel’s drone business.


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