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FAA dallies as demand for commercial drones mounts

| Sunday, Oct. 19, 2014, 12:01 a.m.

Picture this: A major hurricane or earthquake strikes a U.S. city, resulting in millions of dollars in damage. Before insurance companies can settle claims for ruined cars and houses, they need damage assessments to calculate their payouts, but sending adjusters into a potentially dangerous post-catastrophe zone could take weeks.

How to speed up that process, for the company and the property owners? Send in the drones.

The coming years likely will include the use of drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles, for commercial uses that few people expected. While lawmakers and policy wonks for years have focused on some of the more obvious sectors of the economy that want to get their hands on unmanned aircraft, other industries also are itching to experiment with drones.

“I think what we're seeing is that the imagination is the boundary of what we'll see in the future with drones,” said Rachel Stohl, a senior associate with the Stimson Center whose focus includes the growth of the drone market.

The industry interest has meant that the manufacturers of drones are not the only ones pushing the Federal Aviation Administration to lift its tight hold over who can operate them in U.S. airspace. For years, the agency handed out drone operating permits on a case-by-case basis, mostly to law enforcement agencies and research groups.

It's illegal to use drones commercially without an FAA permit, and right now there are almost none for commercial operators. Personal drone use generally is allowed on an individual's own property or on the property of someone else who extends permission, but those rules vary from state to state. Drones are not allowed in U.S. airspace, which means they must be kept below a certain altitude and out of certain areas.

But in 2012, Congress gave the FAA three years to come up with a plan to safely integrate commercial drones into the national airspace system.

The FAA thus far has staked out testing sites to evaluate drone safety, and last month the agency authorized six filmmaking companies to use unmanned aircraft.

The plan is due by September 2015, although the Transportation Department's inspector general says the FAA is significantly behind and may miss the deadline.

One of the challenges for the FAA's drone permitting plans is that unlike manned aircraft, which come in standard classes and are usually used for a common set of jobs, drones can come in almost any size, and the agency is just starting to see the beginning of their potential applications.

“They are having a really hard time understanding the technology,” said Mary Louise Cummings, a materials science professor at Duke University.

Still, the line of industries trying to pressure the FAA to get more permissive on drones is only growing.

The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, a lobbying group, has compiled a list of industries that are trying out the technology or considering doing so.

That includes scenes shot for the movie “The Wolf of Wall Street” by using drones, Conoco and Shell looking to use unmanned aircraft to search for oil off Alaska's shores, the PGA seeking permits to use drones to film some golf events, and the Washington Nationals baseball team taking spring training publicity photos with a small helicopter-style aircraft. (The FAA later quashed that, as the team lacked a permit.)

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