As U.S. regulators study how to govern commercial drones, corporate America is plunging ahead on using unmanned aircraft in a bid to speed the process and win concessions on proposed restrictions.
Large companies including American International Group Inc., Chevron Corp. and BNSF Railway Co. are planning flight trials to inspect storm damage, pipelines and railroad tracks. Union Pacific Corp. will employ its 7-pound drones to monitor derailments of hazardous materials.
The tests come amid complaints from critics led by Amazon.com Inc. that the Federal Aviation Administration is impeding technology that is being deployed rapidly abroad and could reshape everything from industrial inspections to farmland management. While Amazon works on futuristic cargo carriers, other companies are seeking less-restrictive rules as they begin to get unmanned aerial vehicles into U.S. skies.
“I don’t think any of us are out to do this because it’s a cool thing to do,” Lynden Tennison, Union Pacific’s chief information officer, said in an interview. “We’re out to do it because we believe it has business benefits.”
Drones’ potential will be a centerpiece this week in Atlanta as manufacturers and users gather for the annual trade show for the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. The FAA will be urged to move quickly on permanent rules.
The agency proposed regulations in February to lift the current ban on the commercial use of drones weighing less than 55 pounds (25 kilograms) while imposing restrictions. Final rules may be more than a year away as regulators assess about 4,500 public comments. Other regulations cover drones’ recreational use.
Safety advocates welcome the FAA’s caution, but the planned restrictions remain onerous to drone makers and customers: no flying beyond line of sight, no nighttime flights, no operating near people — and the list goes on.
Last year, the FAA agreed to grant exemptions for companies wanting to test drones, and has issued 247 waivers since September. About a dozen went to large companies.
The agency created the exemption so commercial users could start flying even as it follows its usual rulemaking procedure, spokesman Les Dorr said. The FAA’s main priority is to keep the flying public safe, he said.
Chevron is proceeding with development of unmanned aircraft to check pipelines, according to Christian Sanz, chief executive officer of Skycatch, a drone and software maker working with the oil company. The catch: Chevron’s operators would be miles from the drones, while the FAA requires them to be in sight. If the rule isn’t relaxed by the time the UAVs are ready to fly, the tests will be done outside the U.S., Sanz said.
“You have all these multibillion-dollar companies knocking on the door saying, ‘We want to use this now and you need to make it easier,'” said Sanz. He predicts the FAA eventually will drop the line-of-sight requirement.
Amazon, which is developing drones to deliver packages, has been especially critical of the FAA. A proposed agency rule would require drones to be under an operator’s direct control, while Amazon’s craft, flying at least 200 feet off the ground, would be guided by computers and sensors.
In testimony to a U.S. Senate subcommittee in March, Paul Misener, Amazon’s vice president for global public policy, criticized regulators for paying little heed to rules for such autonomous flight.
“This low level of government attention and slow pace are inadequate, especially compared to the regulatory efforts in other countries,” Misener said in a transcript of his testimony.
Amazon also complained it took six months to receive an exemption, compared with two months or less in other countries where it’s experimenting with delivery drones. In an April 24 filing with the FAA, Amazon said its drones should be allowed to fly if they’re not at risk of a collision or a crash.
Most countries, including Canada, the U.K. and Japan, already have permanent laws in place to fly commercial drones. In Japan, farmers use unmanned aircraft to apply pesticides to their fields.
The agency has been one of the biggest “roadblocks” to the commercial drone industry’s growth, said Colin Guinn, chief of sales and marketing for dronemaker 3D Robotics, which is supplying BNSF and AIG with their aircraft. The FAA pays too little notice to how drones flying for business could save lives by replacing piloted helicopters and planes, he said.
“Every single year there are multiple deaths from people flying over power lines taking pictures,” Guinn said.
BNSF plans to use drones to supplement inspection of track and bridges, spokesman Michael Trevino said.
Union Pacific next wants to use drones to check on railroad radio towers that stretch as high as 400 feet and now require inspectors to scale them, Tennison said. Drones would make the work faster and safer, he said.
AIG already is making inspection flights with drones in New Zealand, said Eric Martinez, chief of claims and operations. With unmanned aircraft, the insurer will be able to survey natural-disaster damage with greater speed, detail and safety than relying on workers on ladders and mobile lifts.
“Previously we either wouldn’t have had access to this information, would have had to wait, or in some cases collect it with hands-on methods,” Martinez said by e-mail.
Pilots and small-plane makers say the FAA is right to move carefully. Adding commercial drones to U.S. airspace dwarfs the transition to jets from piston planes and the debut of helicopters, said Walter Desrosier, a vice president with the General Aviation Manufacturers Association trade group.
“Industry is going 1,000 miles per hour with all-new technologies, capabilities and products,” Desrosier said. “And the FAA and the government in terms of how it establishes new regulations and safety standards can only go 50 miles per hour.”
Drone mishaps have stoked critics’ concerns. In January, a man in Washington lost control of a recreational drone that crash-landed on the White House lawn. Last year, a military drone weighing about 375 pounds slammed down near a Pennsylvania elementary school during an exercise and was struck by a vehicle.
“There a sizable number of restrictions,” Union Pacific’s Tennison said. “The FAA has been listening and is recognizing this is an evolving area for them and that it will require change over time.”