The Federal Aviation Administration has released a road map for allowing drones to fly everywhere in the country. But research and regulations are months behind schedule that Congress set to have drones fly safely with commercial airliners by September 2015.
FAA Administrator Michael Huerta released the five-year road map a month ago, which projected 7,500 unmanned aircraft in the skies within that period if regulations are in place.
But technical complexities facing the FAA include how much training to require of ground-based pilots, how to ensure that drones fly safely if they lose contact with their pilot and how drones and commercial aircraft should warn each other when they're in the same area.
The issue of commercial drones came to the forefront this week when Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos told 60 Minutes that the online retail giant is testing the delivery of packages with drones.
The next step in the regulatory process is for Huerta to designate six experimental locations for researchers to test flying drones in general airspace. The agency received 25 proposals from 26 states, and an announcement is expected this month.
"We have operational goals as well as safety issues that we must consider when planning to expand the use of unmanned aircraft," Huerta said.
Despite the challenges, Michael Toscano, CEO of the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, welcomed the road map. He said the industry is projected to create 100,000 jobs and generate $82 billion in economic activity in the decade after the aircraft are allowed in general airspace.
"From advancing scientific research and responding to natural disasters to locating missing persons and helping to fight wildfires, (unmanned aircraft) can save time, save money and, most importantly, save lives," Toscano said.
Drones are now severely limited. A hobbyist can fly a small aircraft several hundred feet off the ground. The FAA has approved several hundred permits for university research and public uses including 80 law-enforcement agencies, but none yet commercial uses, such as what Amazon.com envisions.
"We consider that in the context of how we can safely manage it in the airspace that we have - it's by exception, it's not as of right," Huerta said.
The research and regulations are already behind schedule. Under the congressional schedule set in February 2012, the road map was due in February 2013 and the six experimental locations were supposed to be named by August 2012.
The legislation called for drones to be fully integrated into the airspace by September 2015. Huerta insisted that FAA will meet the deadline while working with the Defense Department, NASA and the Department of Homeland Security to integrate drones into the airspace.
"Rest assured, the FAA will fulfill its statutory obligations to integrate unmanned aircraft systems, but we must fulfill those obligations in a thoughtful, careful manner than ensures safety, protects privacy and promotes economic growth," Huerta said.
Faced with skeptical questions, Huerta said the agency would meet the deadline by "demonstrating what safe integration looks like, what its characteristics are, and to have a framework in place and having some initial work ongoing in that area."
By Bart Jansen