U.S. slowly opening up commercial drone industry
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.
The FAA's interest in nudging along the commercial drone industry predates the 2012 legislation.
The agency in 2009 created a Unmanned Aircraft Program Office to better organize its certification process, and in March of this year said it is still developing a plan to speed integration of civil drones into the national air space.
To date, the FAA has mostly issued certifications for public safety and law enforcement purposes, including firefighting, border control and search-and-rescue missions.
As of Feb. 15, 2013, there were 327 active drone certifications. But once a regulatory framework is in place, the FAA estimates, 7,500 commercial drones will be viable within five years.
The FAA called its certification of the ScanEagle and Puma a "giant leap" in the commercialization of drones.
In a statement after it certified the Boeing and AeroVironment drones, the FAA said a major energy company plans to fly the ScanEagle off the Alaska coast in August to survey ice flows and whale migration in Arctic oil exploration areas. The Puma, meanwhile, will be used for oil spill monitoring and wildlife surveillance over the Beaufort Sea in the Arctic Ocean.
Oil major ConocoPhillips confirmed it has been working with the FAA on the "regulatory and safety aspects" of unmanned aircraft but deferred further explanation until later this summer.
In its next major step, the FAA is expected later this year to announce six test sites for unmanned aircraft, completing another requirement of the 2012 legislation.
Still, not everyone is happy with the FAA's pace. Gielow from the industry group AUVSI said that despite the FAA's commitment to the sector, he is concerned that the agency is not on track for the 2015 congressionally mandated target.
And Paul of Volt Aerial Robotics said the FAA has not yet done enough to tap into one of the biggest customer bases - farmers. "(The FAA) thinks they're going to have systems like the ScanEagle operating in agriculture, but that's not the case," Paul said. "They're simply too expensive."
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