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US lags as commercial drones take off around globe

Drones at Home

WASHINGTON (AP) - A small, four-rotor drone hovered over Washington Nationals players for a few days during spring training in Florida last month, taking publicity photos impossible for human photographer to capture. But no one got the Federal Aviation Administration's permission first.

"No, we didn't get it cleared, but we don't get our pop flies cleared either and those go higher than this thing did," a team official said when contacted by The Associated Press. The drone flights ceased the next day. The official wasn't authorized to speak publicly and asked not to be named.

The agency bars commercial use of drones no matter how seemingly benign. The lone exception is an oil company that has been granted permission to fly drones over the Arctic Ocean, and it took an act of Congress to win that concession.

FAA officials say rules to address the special safety challenges associated with unmanned aircraft need to be in place before they can share the sky with manned aircraft. The agency has worked on those regulations for the past decade, and is still months and possibly years away from issuing final rules for small drones, which are defined as those weighing less than 55 pounds. Rules for larger drones are even further off.

But tempting technology and an eager marketplace are outrunning the aviation agency's best intentions. Photographers, real estate agents, moviemakers and others are hurrying to embrace the technology. Drones have been used to photograph the two apartment buildings that collapsed in New York City this past week and a car crash in Connecticut. The AP, in fact, is one of several news organizations studying the possible use of drones.

Unless FAA officials receive a complaint or chance upon a news story that mentions drone flights, they have little ability to find out about violations. The ban was further undercut this month when a federal judge dismissed the only fine the FAA has imposed on a commercial drone operator. The judge said the agency can't enforce regulations that don't exist.

The FAA, which contends it controls access to the national air space, has appealed.

The use of commercial drones, most of them small, is starting to spread to countries where authorities have decided the aircraft presents little threat if operators follow a few safety rules.

The drone industry and some members of Congress are worried the United States will be one of the last countries, rather than one of the first, to gain the economic benefits of the technology.

"We don't have the luxury of waiting another 20 years," said Paul McDuffee, vice president of drone-maker Insitu of Bingen, Wash., a subsidiary of Boeing. "This industry is exploding. It's getting to the point where it may end up happening with or without the FAA's blessing."

In Japan, the Yamaha Motor Company's RMAX helicopter drones have been spraying crops for 20 years. The radio-controlled drones weighing 140 pounds are cheaper than hiring a plane and are able to more precisely apply fertilizers and pesticides. They fly closer to the ground and their backwash enables the spray to reach the underside of leaves.

The helicopters went into use five years ago in South Korea, and last year in Australia.

Television networks use drones to cover cricket matches in Australia. Zookal, a Sydney company that rents textbooks to college students, plans to begin delivering books via drones later this year. The United Arab Emirates has a project underway to see if government documents like driver's licenses, identity cards and permits can be delivered using small drones.

In the United Kingdom, energy companies use drones to check the undersides of oil platforms for corrosion and repairs, and real estate agents use them to shoot videos of pricey properties. In a publicity stunt last June, a Domino's Pizza franchise posted a YouTube video of a "DomiCopter" drone flying over fields, trees, and homes to deliver two pizzas.

But when Lakemaid Beer tried to use a drone to deliver six-packs to ice fishermen on a frozen lake in Minnesota, the FAA grounded the "brewskis."

Andreas Raptopoulous, CEO of Matternet in Menlo Park, Calif., predicts that in the near term, there will be more extensive use of drones in impoverished countries than in wealthier nations such as the U.S.

He sees a market for drones to deliver medicines and other critical, small packaged goods to the 1 billion people around the globe who don't have year-round access to roads.

Later this year, Matternet plans to start selling to government and aid organizations a package that includes a drone and two landing pads. On the return trip, the drones can carry blood samples bound for labs and other packages.

Germany's express delivery company Deutsche Post DHL is testing a "Paketkopter" drone that could be used to deliver small, urgently needed goods in hard-to-reach places. Facebook is in talks to buy Titan Aerospace, a maker of solar-powered drone-like satellites, to step up its efforts to provide Internet access to remote parts of the world.

There is also a strong business case for urban drones. "If you look at the economic footprint and CO2 emissions," Raptopoulous said, the drone "beats the truck hands down."

Worldwide sales of military and civilian drones will reach an estimated $89 billion over the next decade, according to the Teal Group, an aerospace research company in Fairfax, Va. The FAA estimates as many as 7,500 small commercial drones will be in use by 2018, assuming the necessary regulations are in place.

Jim Williams, head of the FAA's drone office, said writing rules for the U.S. is more complex than other nations. The U.S. has far more air traffic than anywhere else and a greater variety of aircraft, from hot air balloons and old-fashioned barnstormers to the most sophisticated airliners and military and business jets. At low altitudes, the concern is a small drone could collide with a helicopter or small plane flown by a recreational pilot.

"It's a different culture in the U.S. and Canada," Williams said in an interview. "People believe they have the right to just jump in their airplane and fly just like they do their car. ... We can't set up a system that puts any of those folks at risk."

Yet the FAA permits hobbyists to fly model aircraft that have so improved in technology that they're little different from small drones. The FAA has issued voluntary guidelines for hobbyists, including staying away from airports, flying no higher than 400 feet and staying within the line of sight of the operator.

"You could go off to the hobby shop, buy a little remote control helicopter and fly it to your heart's content," McDuffee said. "But if you hung a digital camera on that, took pictures of your neighbor's roof and sold those pictures to him or her, now you are in business and you're flying" an unmanned aircraft system.

Sean Cassidy, senior vice president at the Air Line Pilots Association, said he worries that commercial drone users will be less willing than hobbyists to abide by restrictions because of economic pressures.

Drones are "becoming so prevalent and affordable that something has to be done to make sure they're not being used in a reckless manner," he, said. "Even a fairly small (drone), if the person flying this thing is unaware of their surroundings ... there could be very dire consequences."

Join the discussion

1000|Char. 1000  Char.
Don March 17 2014 at 4:03 AM

Well it's ok for the" MR Mulatto " government to use use drones, but not OK for private enterprise to do so also??? The Goodyear Blimp is now obsolete.

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1 reply
ordobtrebla Don March 17 2014 at 5:40 AM

The Goodyear Drone..
It hovers 2 feet above your head with small electronic letters spelling out tiny commercials...

Flag Reply +1 rate up
airborneinore March 16 2014 at 7:20 PM

Ask Target what they think of not keeping up with technology. If US credit cards had chips in them Target would have a couple of extra billion to play with.

Flag Reply +2 rate up
kfranklint March 16 2014 at 7:05 PM

Another example of government impeding progress.

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John Myers March 16 2014 at 6:53 PM

two

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kgr656 March 16 2014 at 6:42 PM

Two words come to mind, twelve guage.

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2 replies
David..BRAAPP kgr656 March 16 2014 at 7:05 PM

A new form of trap shooting. I'm all in

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Ray kgr656 March 16 2014 at 7:25 PM

Exactly...they come into my space and they are history. These things will pollute the air before its all over.
Like all good and useful inventions this too will be mis-used and abused. Humankind has not evolved enough to use this wisely.

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1 reply
doketx Ray March 16 2014 at 10:34 PM

Have the last few wars not proven that technology has advanced at a much more rapid pace than human intellect?

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wlh1923 March 16 2014 at 6:30 PM

Good grief the skies are already filled with non-regulated ultra lights, kit and home built aircraft and all manner of do it yourself flying machines. Threats to commercial aircraft? Pffffft. The FAA can't do anything about bird strikes - a much more serious and pressing problem in this country.

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1 reply
babbtx wlh1923 March 16 2014 at 7:27 PM

Actually, ultralights are regulated. You are required to get a license to operate one, and you are required to take tests to demonstrate that you know how to avoid areas where there is a conflict of traffic. Ultralights are also limited in size, scope, and mission (you can't sell charter flights to people). The problem is that some 'yahoo' will be showboating and crash with tragic results. Already, Houston PD got in trouble with its drones flying too low over a crowd, and let's not forget about the border patrol that shot up some folks in a truck, just cause it seemed like the thing to do at the time.

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DAVID STROK March 16 2014 at 6:26 PM

The Jetsons have been flying around for years. And it doesn't seem to cause to much of a problem.

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1 reply
hynotman DAVID STROK March 16 2014 at 11:20 PM

EVERYTHING is off the ground in Jetson-land.

And all buildings are required have "falling flying car" protective roofs.

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spike March 16 2014 at 6:10 PM

When these drones hit the skies say good bye to your last vestige of privacy

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3 replies
Roberta March 16 2014 at 5:50 PM

If the FAA dif not control planes, drones etc. our air space would be a mess, accidents left and right.
Amazon wants to use them for delivery. Who else?

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1 reply
wlh1923 Roberta March 16 2014 at 6:25 PM

Yeah, by the same distorted logic the FCC is allowed to control cell phones, hence signal blocking is illegal in the United States because it is erroneously lumped in with laws controlling radio stations and clear channel signal blocking. Over regulation is the norm here.

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envoyltd March 16 2014 at 5:39 PM

But what happens when if falls out of the sky and kills someone? What happens when you see your government using it to film you? Before you know it the NYPD will be using it to write one billion tickets every year.

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2 replies
OSHP367 envoyltd March 16 2014 at 5:49 PM

Dear Henny Penny,

The sky is not falling, nor have any drones fallen out of the sky and killed anyone. Baseballs, yes. Lawn darts, yes. So instead of creating panic and paranoia with your what if's, why not just enforce existing laws if someday they cause a problem?

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1 reply
hynotman OSHP367 March 16 2014 at 11:31 PM

Because backyard mechanic joe hasn't been allowed to put his latest experiment up in the air above the heads of innocent human being...

Now, tell us just what "existing laws" protect us from falling drones?

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spike envoyltd March 16 2014 at 6:15 PM

spying over your back yard privacy fence,filming in your windows

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1 reply
wlh1923 spike March 16 2014 at 6:27 PM

If one were hovering out back spying or attempting to get a gander in my house? I'd shoot it down as it is violating my airspace and I have LEGITIMATE concerns for my own health and safety.

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