Nascent UAV industry awaits FAA rulings
December 8, 2014
Everyone in Northern Nevada may be all excited about unmanned aerial vehicles.
But the Federal Aviation Administration isn't ready to rush into anything.
The FAA is working on rules that would establish conservative regulations on commercial use of UAVs (the industry would prefer that no one call them drones any more), but those working to develop the industry in Nevada say they're not worried.
"It's just a speed bump," says Warren Rapp, who heads the initiative at the University of Nevada, Reno, to commercialize university research in the autonomous-systems business.
The FAA is expected to issue long-awaited rules by the end of this year.
Among the possibilities: Unmanned aerial craft could be flown only by licensed pilots, flights would be limited to daytime hours, drones couldn't fly higher than 400 feet and they'd need to remain within sight of the pilot at the controls.
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Richard Jost, an attorney and director with Fennemore Craig Jones Vargas in Las Vegas, says no one disagrees with need for rules to protect the safety of traditional aircraft from interference by unmanned craft.
"It's in everyone's interest that the FAA get it right the first time," says Jost, whose clients include the Nevada Institute for Autonomous Systems.
The proposed rules might dampen the enthusiasm of commercial operators who are thinking about UAVs as cost-effective tools to handle tasks ranging from small-package delivery to firefighting in remote areas, some of the industry say.
But the rules aren't enough to cool the ardor of those who see unmanned aerial vehicles as one of the cornerstones of the region's economic future.
"We will continue to work to attract UAV companies to the region," says Mike Kazmierski, president and chief executive officer of the Economic Development Authority of Western Nevada.
He notes that Nevada's early competitive advantage in the UAV sector comes from designation of test-flight areas in the state.
Jost notes, however, that those test flights currently require time-consuming FAA approval each time that an unmanned craft is modified even slightly. The Nevada Institute for Autonomous System supports a system that would provide blanket authorization for testing of certain types of UAVs.
(While the FAA sorts this out, some UAV companies are renting big indoor spaces — convention centers and the like — because indoor testing isn't limited by the federal agency.)
While the rules currently limit testing, more testing may be exactly what the UAV industry needs at this point.
"Part of the testing to be done in the state is to offer input to the FAA on potential modification to the current regulations to facilitate the safe integration of this air traffic into the airspace of the future," says Kazmierski.
He acknowledges that loosening of the FAA rules — a step that the FAA has promised as it gets more information — might prove helpful to the industry's development.
"Most people would agree that the use of UAVs will continue to grow in the years ahead. We are fortunate as a state to be part of the development of this exciting new industry," the EDAWN chief says.
Rapp, who worked with the state government's program to support the drones industry before he moved to his post at UNR, notes that development of UAV technology is under way in nations around the world, and a period of cautious regulation by U.S. authorities wouldn't kill the young technology.
"There's an international market, and internationally is where they are being flown today," says Rapp.
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