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FAA misses deadline to broadly legalize commercial drones

Canada, Europe, and Japan are ahead of the US in regulating and legalizing drones

In what comes as a surprise to precisely no one in the drone industry, the FAA has missed the deadline set by Congress back in 2012 to integrate drones — which it calls small unmanned aircraft, or UAVs — into the national airspace. The goal was to have a comprehensive set of rules that would govern how commercial operations could use drones, updating the more generalized FAA regulations for UAVs that have been adapted to fit the booming population of both commercial and civilian drones. Instead the FAA has managed only to issue a draft proposal for new rules and to issue exemptions for commercial operations on a case-by-case basis.

As we covered in our drone database, there are now more than 1,000 companies with an FAA 333 exemption to fly drones as part of their business. That number is growing by hundreds each week, but even at that pace, a backlog of applicants is building. In response to the blown deadline, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) and 28 other industry players penned a letter to federal officials voicing their concerns.

"While the FAA has hit some milestones in the integration process, it has yet to finalize small UAS rules, let alone facilitate the full integration of UAS that Congress contemplated in 2012," stated the letter. "The increasing number of businesses applying for Section 333 exemptions demonstrates the pent-up demand for commercial UAS operations and the immediate need for a regulatory framework."

Most of the heavy lifting to get the drone industry off the ground is probably going to come from outside the FAA. The agency has essentially deputized NASA to work with the private sector and academia on the next generation of air traffic control, and to prove out the technology for accident avoidance. Google, Amazon, Lockheed Martin, and dozens of other players large and small will be working over the next year to try and push the regulatory framework forward and agree on standards that would become the legal foundation for extensive autonomous fleets of drones over our towns and cities. Commercial operators, still required to have a pilot's license to fly, are going to bizarre lengths in order navigate the current legal limbo.

For the US delay by the FAA has two major downsides: losing competitive edge against other nations and fomenting a patchwork of local laws that could stifle innovation and be difficult to undo. Already legislators in New York and California are introducing bills that would severely limit drone flight in their skies. Given the glacial pace of the FAA and rapidly expanding number of drones in the air, who can blame them?