Editorial: FAA Drone Regulations Stuck in Molasses

Other countries are leapfrogging past the United States in commercial drone development thanks to a reasonable regulatory structure.

by The Oklahoman / April 8, 2015

(TNS) -- If you need an example of how overly burdensome regulation stifles economic activity, consider this: The Federal Aviation Administration recently gave approval to Amazon to test-fly a delivery drone, but took so long to give the green light that the drone in question is now obsolete.

How’s that for government inefficiency? By the time the FAA gave its approval to Amazon, the company didn’t need it. Paul Misener, Amazon’s vice president for global public policy, testified at a congressional hearing that the FAA approval was for a drone the company doesn’t test anymore. “We’ve moved on to more advanced designs that we already are testing abroad.”

Officials should take note of the last phrase in that last sentence — testing abroad. Other countries are leapfrogging past the United States in commercial drone development thanks to a reasonable regulatory structure. Meanwhile, the U.S. system is stuck in molasses.

The drone approval process that Amazon and other companies face is the same process that plane makers like Boeing Co. must undergo before testing new manned aircraft. In effect, federal regulators assume there is little difference between flying a model airplane and flying a commercial jet.

Under this system, each time an improvement is made to a drone’s design, a company must apply for a new permit. Given how quickly drone upgrades can and do occur, that requirement makes it virtually impossible for the FAA to approve drone testing with the latest technology.

The argument for heavy regulation of drones is that public safety could be endangered without strict oversight. Yet federal regulations effectively make it impossible for developers to rapidly improve and test drone technology in ways that increase safety by reducing the impact of human error.

The FAA can provide commercial drone exemptions to applicants, allowing them the ability to avoid the cumbersome approval process each time a design is modified. But the FAA has provided that to just 50 or so operators. To date, Amazon (which wants to use drones for deliveries) is not among that group.

This generates a patchwork quilt of regulation. Some operators, fortunate enough to receive the exemption, are free to develop commercial drone applications while their less-politically favored counterparts must wait for weeks, months or years simply to modify a drone. This tilts the marketplace in favor of companies that successfully work the system and against those that are less politically astute.

It also drives drone development to other countries, particularly Europe. We’ve noted before that some European nations, unlike the United States, are home to thousands of approved operators who have created a thriving industry providing numerous services to consumers.

Some U.S. drone operators, who can’t afford to take their work overseas, are instead conducting research illegally. Under U.S. regulations, an individual can use a drone for private use without prior authorization, but cannot do the exact same task for money. Obviously, this makes enforcement difficult and leads to widespread flouting of drone regulations. This means the purported public safety benefits of existing regulations are effectively negated even though the impediment to widespread economic development of the drone industry remains intact.

European regulators have found a way to allow commercial drone development without massive threat to public safety. Surely the United States can do the same thing without equating a small drone to a Boeing 747.

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