Hurdles Delaying Drones Outlined

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June 6, 2014

Drones represent revolutionary changes in aviation, but they pose serious safety questions as they prepare to share the sky with airliners, according to a National Research Council report out Thursday.

The 92-page report comes as drone advocates urge faster Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approval of commercial uses, from aerial scenes in movies such as “The Wolf of Wall Street” to Amazon's experiments with delivering items sold on its website. The report lists several barriers to wider use of drones, which are anticipated for jobs deemed too dangerous or boring for people:

Technology. Engineering drones to cope with changing conditions that exist in crowded airspace, such as sensing its position in relation to other aircraft, needing more wireless communications and protecting against hijacking by software.

Regulation. Certifying aircraft and remote pilots as safe, despite differences in standards for aircraft with passengers and crew aboard.

Social issues. Ensuring public concerns about safety and privacy are resolved.

"There is little doubt that over the long run, the potential benefits of advanced unmanned aircraft and other increasingly autonomous systems to civil aviation will indeed be great, but there should be equally little doubt that getting there while maintaining the safety and efficiency of the nation's civil aviation system will be no easy matter," said John-Paul Clarke, an associate professor of aerospace engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology who co-chaired the committee that wrote the report.

Drone development is accelerating, according to the report, prompted by the promise of a range of applications, such as dusting crops, monitoring traffic or executing dangerous missions such as fighting forest fires. The industry is projected to grow to 7,500 drones within five years after the FAA settles on regulations.

The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International estimates the industry will create 100,000 jobs and generate $82 billion in economic activity a decade after drones start sharing the sky.

The FAA is developing rules for drones to share the skies with passenger planes under a congressional deadline of September 2015. Rules for smaller drones weighing up to 55 pounds are expected later this year. In addition, the FAA is considering expediting approval of commercial uses for filmmaking, agriculture and inspections of pipelines and flare stacks.

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