U.S. slowly opening up commercial drone industry

An unmanned scan-eagle gets hooked in its trap as its technicians look on onboard USS Ponce during the International Mine Countermeasures Exercise (IMCMEX) at the Middle East Gulf, May 13, 2013. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed

The Federal Aviation Administration’s recent certification of two expensive unmanned aircraft for commercial use further opens up the U.S. market for drones, but cheaper unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) will still have to operate in regulatory limbo.

The drone industry was heartened by the FAA’s decision in late July to greenlight Boeing Co’s (BA.N) Insitu ScanEagle and AeroVironment Inc’s (AVAV.O) Puma, in the first such U.S. certification of drones for commercial use.

These remote aircraft weigh less than 50 pounds 22 kilograms), have wingspans of about 4.5 feet and come with a hefty estimated price tag of $100,000 each.

Their approval is seen as a first step in unleashing a potentially multibillion-dollar industry that so far has been largely limited to military and law enforcement applications.

In the meantime, however, dozens of companies are chomping at the bit for the FAA to certify their own more affordable drones, saying there is no way farmers and many others can invest in the type of UAVs that received certification last month.

The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), an industry group, hailed the FAA’s certification of the two drones. “This is a huge step forward and this is a big deal for our industry,” said Ben Gielow, government relations manager for the group.

Congress in early 2012 passed legislation calling on the FAA to write rules by 2015 that would govern the commercial operation of drones that can be used for everything from spraying pesticides on farmland to catching exotic-animal poachers to monitoring sport events.

Aviation and aerospace industry research firm Teal Group has estimated that annual spending on drones around the world will almost double to $11.4 billion by 2022. AUVSI has estimated the industry could contribute more than $80 billion to the U.S. economy over a decade.

The FAA is taking a cautious approach to the controversial aircraft. The U.S. government’s use of weaponized drones to remotely kill foreign combatants has sparked a fierce debate, while privacy advocates fear a commercial explosion of big-brother-like drones.

Rory Paul, chief executive of Volt Aerial Robotics, a St. Louis-based company, said the efficiency gains from using UAVs to scout and map farmland have prompted some farmers to use lower-priced drones in spite of FAA regulations.

“The FAA doesn’t have inspectors running around the heartland looking for people with UAVs,” Paul said.

Paul has provided a number of farmers with his company’s Octane quadcopters, which cost $10,770 each. He also sells a fixed-wing UAV called the WaveSight for about $50,000.

The FAA says it will try to stop unauthorized commercial activity if it becomes known but adds that it will resort to civil penalties only in extreme cases.

“We really would only pursue a civil penalty if someone was operating an unmanned aircraft in a reckless manner,” said FAA spokesman Les Dorr.

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