With drones already delivering prescription drugs in Germany, spraying crops in Japan and filming James Bond action scenes overseas, companies want in on a drone revolution — which could have a $6.5 billion impact in Texas over the next decade, a leading industry advocate said Tuesday.
But questions about safety, standards for pilots and equipment, and overarching privacy concerns with the collected data remain unresolved in the U.S.
So far, the only federally approved commercial drones are being used for oil exploration in the remote stretches of Alaska.
Hobbyists and private landowners can purchase so-called unmanned aerial systems, including model aircraft, but are restricted from flying them over 400 feet or near populated areas.
“In a crawl, walk, run scenario, what Amazon showed you was more of a run,” Michael Toscano, president and CEO of the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, said, referring to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos' proposal to make deliveries by “octocopters”
“We have to do the crawl and the walk first,” Toscano said.
Toscano was keynote speaker at a conference for more than 100 potential drone users, both public and private, at the Corpus Christi headquarters of one of the Federal Aviation Administration's six drone test sites.
Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi won approval to oversee the site — a swath of airspace that includes 11 test ranges from South Texas to College Station — in December.
The test-site designations were the first step in integrating drones into commercial airspace, which Congress has mandated take place by 2015.
Last year, AUVSI released a study that found the economic impact of integrating drones into the nation's airspace would total more than $13.6 billion in the first three years. Between 2015 and 2025, UAS integration could have an economic impact of $82.1 billion and account for some 104,000 new jobs, the study said.
In Texas, the report predicted more than 8,000 jobs could be created between 2015 and 2025. Its authors weighed sales of products overseas, telephone survey results, data on adaptation rates of new technology in the state and other factors in calculating the $6.5 billion economic impact.
On Tuesday, AUVSI and the Academy of Model Aeronautics joined 31 other organizations urging the FAA to expedite the rulemaking process to allow UAS operations — and in the time being allow more use of small UAS for commercial purposes.
While Bezos' Dec. 1 announcement evoked images of package-carrying devices zooming pell-mell over suburban sidewalks, they will likely find first U.S. uses in farming and natural disaster response.
Precision agriculture and public safety make up some 90 percent of the known potential market, Toscano said.
Drones have already been used in the United States to survey wildfires and floods and to monitor ice and weather conditions in the U.S. Arctic.
However, a source familiar with FAA procedures said considerations such as what constituted commercial use, whether pilots would need certification, and whether each UAV would have to have some sort of registration could make the rule-making a long and arduous process.
“When you start to fly over cities, you start to operate aircraft businesses — the FAA's going to expect that you have a higher level of safety. And so, they're going to impose a higher level of regulation,” he said.
©2014 the San Antonio Express-News