The unmanned-aviation industry will be anxiously awaiting the release of new U.S. government regulations that may provide clues to whether unpiloted aircraft will receive flight rights in the national airspace.
The Federal Aviation Administration is expected next year to publish updated rules for the operation of small unmanned air vehicles that weigh no more than 55 pounds. Manufacturers of UAVs--which have thrived in the military market--will be closely watching these developments as they seek to attract civilian customers, such as law-enforcement agencies and oil-drilling companies.
That the FAA is drafting new regulations signals to the industry that the agency may eventually institute rules for UAVs to fly in the U.S. airspace just like conventional airplanes, which means they would not have to apply for special permits as they do today.
Other promising indications for the industry are that the FAA has created a "UAV program office" and has signed several "cooperative research and development" agreements with manufacturers that allow FAA personnel to fly companies' UAVs in order to gain hands-on experience on how they are operated.
"They'll start developing a rule package that will allow us incrementally to gain access to the airspace," said Paul McDuffee, vice president of commercial business development at Insitu, a Boeing subsidiary in Bingen, Wash., that supplies UAVs to the U.S. military.
The company recently signed a two-year deal with the FAA that gives agency operators free access to two Insitu-made ScanEagle aircraft and ground-control stations.
Similar arrangements also are in place with other UAV and flight-software makers, including General Atomics, AAI Corp. and GE Aviation Systems.
The ScanEagle will be flown from the FAA's technology center in Atlantic City, N.J., and will be used by both the FAA and the New Jersey National Guard.
The Atlantic City facility is home to a new simulator that replicates the so-called Next Generation Air Transportation System, which the FAA plans to introduce in the coming years. For UAV firms, the launch of the next-gen technology can't come soon enough, because it is expected to automate the control of air traffic and, technically, make it easier to allow more vehicles to fly safely.
The FAA is taking a cautious approach as it fears that added congestion in the skies will lead to trouble, especially at the lower altitudes where small UAVs would be flying. Already the...