WASHINGTON - The Obama administration is on the verge of proposing long-awaited rules for commercial drone operations in U.S. skies, but key decisions on how much access to grant drones are likely to come from Congress next year.
Federal Aviation Administration officials have said they want to release proposed rules this month, but other government and industry officials say they are likely to be delayed until January. Meanwhile, except for a few companies that have received FAA exemptions, a ban on commercial drone flights remains in place. Even after rules are proposed, it is likely to be two or three years before regulations become final.
That's too long to wait, say drone industry officials. Every year the ban remains in place, the United States loses more than $10 billion in potential economic benefits that drones could provide, according to the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.
"We need some sort of process that allows some of the low-risk operations," said Jesse Kallman, head of regulatory affairs for Airware, a drone technology company backed by Google Ventures. "I think Congress understands that, and hopefully they'll take steps . . . to address that."
That appears to be what some lawmakers have in mind. "We in Congress are very interested in UAS," Rep. Bill Shuster (R., Pa.), chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said at a hearing this month, referring to unmanned aerial systems, or drones. "We understand UAS are an exciting technology with the potential to transform parts of our economy. ... It is our responsibility to take a close look."
One of the committee's first priorities next year is writing legislation to reauthorize FAA programs and overhaul aviation policy. The bill is expected to include directions from lawmakers on how to integrate drones into the nation's aviation system.
The FAA is expected to propose restricting drones of less than 55 pounds to altitudes below 400 feet, forbid nighttime flights, and require drones be kept within sight of their operators.
Congress already is getting pushback from private and commercial pilots who worry about possible collisions.
Last week, drone trade groups teamed up with the FAA and model aircraft hobbyists to launch a safety campaign aimed at amateur drone operations.
Retailers say small drones, indistinguishable from today's more sophisticated model aircraft, were popular this Christmas. Sellers include Hammacher Schlemmer, Brookstone, and Amazon.