EDITORIAL: FAA needs to expedite rules for unmanned aircraft

When Amazon founder Jeff Bezos dazzled “60 Minutes” interviewer Charlie Rose a while back with his supposed plan to deliver products with drone aircraft, he glossed over the obstacles that stand in his way.

“There’s no reason they can’t be used as delivery vehicles,” he said at the time. Then he acknowledged that it won’t happen before 2015 because that’s the earliest the Federal Aviation Administration will set the rules. And that, he added, may be a little optimistic.

Amazon isn’t the only commercial company that’s eager to put drone aircraft to work. So would other cargo carriers such as UPS and FedEx, but so also would any business that currently sends people to check on pipelines, cell towers and other infrastructure.

The fact is, the United States lags the rest of the world when it comes to letting unmanned aircraft deploy in the service of commercial business. Only now is the FAA setting up test ranges where operators can fly drones in commercial airspace. At this pace, it will be years before business owners can add them to their management toolkits.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The government can accelerate the pace of commercial deployments, while continuing to protect public safety, as it does with commercial aviation.

A group of pilotless aircraft companies and advocates called for expedited rulemaking on commercial drone flights by the FAA. “The current regulatory void has left American entrepreneurs and others either sitting on the sidelines or operating in the absence of appropriate safety guidelines,” they said in a letter to the agency.

The FAA moves slowly because, like other federal agencies from the Patent Office to the Food and Drug Administration, it isn’t built to keep up with the pace of innovation. Its plan to roll out test ranges had to be imposed upon it by Congress, which ordered the agency to produce a set of rules governing the use of drones by September 2015.

Another wrinkle: A National Transportation Safety Board arbitrator has called into question whether the FAA even has the authority to regulate commercial drones. The FAA has appealed his ruling, which threatens to throw open the doors to unfettered commercial use. That would probably be too much, too soon.

To be sure, there are a multitude of issues that must be resolved or at least framed before drones fly freely in urban areas. When drones are deployed by law enforcement agencies, for example, the public should be informed of where they are and how they are used. It would be entirely appropriate to set rules limiting their ability to observe and collect data on law-abiding citizens.

But this is a time when the technology is available and the customers are ready to use it. There’s more to be gained than lost by moving more quickly to let it happen. The FAA should drive the regulatory process, rather than be driven by it.

04/17/2014 - 9:11am