Drones Approved for Flight In the US

The FAA funding bill recently signed into law by President Barack Obama is set to significantly increase the use of unmanned aircraft in the United States. Developed for military use in armed conflicts, drones such as the Predator, manufactured by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, have played an essential role in surveillance and other activities in hostile territories. Apart from the drones used by authorities to monitor remote areas for criminal activities, and some research companies and universities that have FAA permission to pilot the unmanned aircraft, the Federal Aviation Administration has held back on allowing unmanned flights inside the United States until now.

With the new legislation, the aviation industry is expanding into robotic technology, with around fifty universities, companies and government organizations reportedly developing up to 155 different drone designs, ranging from Boeing 737 size to the size of a model airplane. Some of the areas in which drones are likely to be used are for surveying property, fighting forest fires and spraying crops. It is anticipated that the unmanned vehicle industry, which is currently worth an estimated $4.3 billion, will climb to $11 billion by the year 2020.

The FAA is required to develop a plan within the next twelve months detailing how it will integrate unmanned aircraft into US airspace by September 30, 2015. To comply with the act, the FAA must liaise with relevant government agencies within 90 days to process applications for permission to fly drones. The new regulations may lead to police officers being approved to fly drones weighing up to 4.4 pounds, with the proviso that they are always kept within eyesight; are only flown in daylight; remain at least five miles away from airports; and keep below a height of 400 meters.

Safety issues, funding and privacy concerns are among the objections raised by opponents to the new bill. While at some time in the future it is likely drones will have the ability to detect obstacles and other aircraft, and avoid them, the technology is not yet available, raising concerns regarding safety. Privacy concerns include the unmonitored surveillance of private citizens. Although law enforcement helicopters do not currently have any restrictions preventing them from carrying out surveillance of private property, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) argue that new technology opens up opportunities for even closer scrutiny and there should be checks and balances in place to protect civilian rights.

Government relations manager and general counsel for the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, Ben Gielow, noted that there is huge potential in the United States for unmanned aircraft. He also pointed out that, contrary to the public’s perception of drones being the large Global Hawks or Predators, most of the unmanned aircraft that will be taking to the skies are likely to weigh less than 10 pounds and measure a couple of feet in diameter . The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International has 7,000 members and represents 500 companies involved in the manufacture of air, ground and sea drones.