Report: Regulatory Mess May Hold Up Domestic Drone Revolution

The FAA has many questions to answer before widespread domestic drones become a reality.

In this Oct. 25, 2007, file photo U.S. Customs Border Patrol Air and Marine Division Deputy Director Supervisory AIA Pete McNall checks the camera on the Predator drone unmanned aerial vehicle at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., prior to a night mission.

U.S. Customs Border Patrol Air and Marine Division Deputy Director Supervisory AIA Pete McNall checks the camera on the Predator drone at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., in 2007.

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The legislation passed by Congress earlier this year that would usher in the age of domestic drones is fraught with confusing language and ambiguous deadlines, a new analysis by a Brookings Institution fellow argues.

The Federal Aviation Administration Modernization and Reform Act, signed by President Barack Obama in February, requires the FAA to make rules and safety guidelines that will bring thousands of unmanned aircraft into American skies by 2015.

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But Wells Bennett, a national security law expert at Brookings, argues that the law's deadlines "function like a big, jumbled timetable."

"'Deadline' may be too strong a term," he argues. "FMRA employs vaguely-worded objectives, and it doesn't always require the [FAA] to take precisely measurable steps … There's no formal compliance mechanism to hurry the agency along."

So far, three of the deadlines established in the law have passed: In May, the FAA had made agreements with government agencies that allowed them to fly drones. They met that deadline, but missed one in August that required the FAA to establish six safety testing sites around the country. The FAA met a November deadline to establish an applications process for private drone operators.

Even before the law was passed, the FAA has decided whether to grant waivers to allow people to operate drones on a case-by-case basis, something they have continued to do into the present day. That strategy worked for a while, Wells argues, but has created problems going forward as more and more agencies and companies apply for licenses.

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"In [an] iterative fashion, the FAA has created a rough process for deciding which UAS [unmanned aerial systems] can fly and which UAS cannot," he writes. "The process is still not standardized."

One of the reasons for that, the FAA argues, is that drone technology is still in its infancy. Without pilots, drones can't, and may never be able to, perform "see and avoid" maneuvers that piloted planes can. There have already been two drone crashes in the United States this year. A Navy drone crashed in Maryland in June, and in March, a drone operated a county police department in Texas crashed during a demonstration.

According to the FAA, it takes about 60 days to issue a waiver to fly a drone. From 2009 to the end of November, 345 waivers had been issued.

"Because they are inherently different from manned aircraft, introducing UAS into the nation's airspace is challenging for both the FAA and aviation community," the agency says. "Safety is the FAA's top mission."

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But, Wells says, if the FAA wants to meet Congress' deadline of late 2015 for widespread drone integration, it has to deal with other issues drones raise, such as public privacy and the fact that drones can, and have, been remotely hijacked.

"The key questions are awfully hard … and the most difficult work is yet to come," he writes.

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Jason Koebler is a science and technology reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow him on Twitter or reach him at jkoebler@usnews.com.