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.
Alan is serial entrepreneur, active angel investor, and a drone enthusiast. He co-founded DRONELIFE.com to address the emerging commercial market for drones and drone technology. Prior to DRONELIFE.com, Alan co-founded Where.com, ThinkingScreen Media, and Nurse.com. Recently, Alan has co-founded Crowditz.com, a leader in Equity Crowdfunding Data, Analytics, and Insights. Alan can be reached at alan(at)dronelife.com