The U.S. commercial drone industry is still struggling to get off the ground more than two years after President Obama signed into law a bill that permits the civilian use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) over the country's airspace.
Critics say a growing number of state level anti-drone measures as well as a continuing lack of federal aviation rules for operating civilian drones are to blame for the slow start to the industry.
The Federal Aviation Administration Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 authorizes the FAA to issue licenses for commercial drone use in the U.S. It also requires that the agency draft rules governing the use of civilian drones by law enforcement agencies and private entities.
The FAA modernization law was widely expected to result in tens of thousands of commercial drones being licensed to fly over U.S. airspace. So far, however, all it has produced is a lot of noise.
Since the law was passed in Feb. 2012, some 43 states have proposed a total of 130 bills and resolutions seeking limits on drone use. A total of 13 states have enacted anti-drone laws while another 11 have adopted resolutions seeking drone use limits.
Most of the legislation was prompted by concerns that UAVs will enable unprecedented privacy and civil rights violations, especially by law enforcement authorities. Privacy and rights groups have consistently harped on how drones with facial recognition cameras, license plate scanners, thermal imaging cameras, open Wi-Fi sniffers and other sensors could be easily used for general public safety surveillance.
Earlier this month, lawmakers in Louisiana and Pennsylvania became the latest to announce proposals seeking to ban the use of UAVs in certain circumstances.
Meanwhile, the FAA itself has yet to come up with any safety and operational rules governing civilian drone use in the country.
Also, the agency has issued just two commercial drone licenses in the U.S, since the law went into effect, according to Ben Gielow, general counsel of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), a drone trade group.
Of that, only one — issued to energy giant ConocoPhillips — is being used. Conoco currently operates a 40-pound drone off the North Slope of Alaska to monitor oil pipelines, the movement of icebergs and to perform other maintenance-related monitoring.
The net result is that the U.S. is in danger of falling well behind other parts of the world in the use of drones for commercial applications, Gielow said.
In Europe and elsewhere, small UAVs, of the sort proposed in the U.S, are increasingly being used in a wide range of applications including land management, crop monitoring, traffic management, real estate sales and news reporting. Even extremely privacy-friendly countries like Germany have permitted widespread use of UAVs in commercial applications, Gielow said.
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