A ruling by an administrative law judge holds that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) lacks clear-cut authority to ban the commercial use of unmanned aircraft in U.S. continental airspace. The decision, which can be appealed to the full National Transportation Safety Board as well as a federal judge, is bound to complicate FAA's already challenging job of crafting policies and regulations to oversee the nascent industry.
Separately, escalating industry demands for action have prompted FAA officials in recent weeks to begin looking for ways to authorize expedited but limited commercial uses of small drones in U.S. airspace. FAA has banned the commercial use of unmanned aircraft over the U.S. airspace until it develops rules to integrate drones into the national airspace—a process that is expected to take until 2015 even for the smallest unmanned vehicles operating in isolated areas. More comprehensive rules covering larger models are likely to take years longer to complete.
Commercial drone use has been taking off abroad, and many U.S. companies and drone manufacturers have been frustrated with FAA's stance. Recently, however, the FAA's hard line on commercial drones appears to be eroding. The agency is considering case-by-case approvals or waivers for certain commercial uses of drones, including in the agriculture and film industries, before it completes broader rules for small unmanned systems, according to government and industry officials and lawyers involved in the discussions.
Image courtesy of Forbes/Michael Khor.