COUNTERPOINT: How do we handle the growing use of drones in Illinois?
Move quickly on clear rules; billion-dollar industry makes UAS integration a top priority
By BRIAN WYNNE
Unmanned aircraft systems, more commonly called drones, are at an exciting and pivotal stage, transforming the way a number of industries operate and creating several new ones as well. Whether helping insurance companies efficiently survey damages due to natural disasters or helping farmers improve crop yields, the applications of UAS are virtually limitless and enable businesses and public agencies to operate more safely and cost effectively. As a result, UAS are expected to have a significant impact on the economy and society in Illinois and across the country.
According to an economic study by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), in the first decade following UAS integration into the national airspace, the industry is projected to create more than 1,500 jobs and provide more than $1.2 billion in economic impact in Illinois. Nationwide, those numbers jump to more than 100,000 jobs and $82 billion in economic impact in the first 10 years following integration.
Despite the huge potential of UAS, the industry is being held back by the lack of a clear regulatory framework. On Sept. 30, 2015, the Federal Aviation Administration missed the congressionally mandated deadline for integrating UAS into the national airspace, and it has still yet to finalize rules for operating small UAS, which are primarily for operations using aircraft platforms weighing less than 55 pounds. If Illinois businesses are going to reap the full benefits of this growing industry, we need Washington to make UAS integration a top priority.
Right now, the only way for businesses in the United States to fly is through a restrictive exemption process due to the existing ban on commercial UAS operations. Since the FAA announced it would grant exemptions for certain low-risk commercial UAS operations in May 2014, more than 2,000 businesses across the nation have received permission to fly commercially. It’s clear that once the FAA finalizes the small UAS rules a burgeoning UAS market will be unleashed.
AUVSI recently examined the first 1,000 approvals under this exemption process. The report found that Illinois businesses received 35 exemptions, and that UAS are being used in many of the state’s top industries, including agriculture, insurance and real estate.
For example, the State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co. in Bloomington uses UAS to help evaluate insurance claims, allowing them to get resolutions for customers more quickly. Natalie Contracting, a Chicago-based company, supports the growth of UAS technology by providing turnkey solutions for businesses looking to integrate UAS into their current work flows. And Quad Productions, which is also based in Chicago, uses UAS technology to provide aerial footage and imaging for real estate, movie studios, nonprofit associations, and others.
These companies demonstrate the potential opportunities UAS can bring to Illinois and highlight that the current system of case-by-case approvals isn’t a long-term solution. Illinois has the fourth-highest number of exemptions in the country, clearly indicating the pent-up demand for commercial UAS operations in the state.
The lack of regulations isn’t just restricting the economic potential of the industry; it’s also causing some states and municipalities to fill the void with laws that they may not have the authority to enforce. According to the U.S. Code, “The United States Government has exclusive sovereignty of airspace of the United States.” In other words, only the FAA can regulate airspace; states and municipalities cannot.
These inconsistencies with federal law also have the potential to stifle innovation and create a complicated patchwork of state laws and local ordinances for an industry in which there’s confusion about where UAS can and cannot fly. For the continued safety of the airspace, the FAA needs to use all available means to finalize the small UAS rules to bring greater clarity to, and awareness of, the policies governing UAS, not allow more confusion to take hold.
Once this happens, there will be an established framework for UAS operations that will do away with the case-by-case system of approvals, reducing the barriers to commercial UAS operations. After the FAA completes the small UAS rules, it should immediately move ahead with the next regulatory steps that are necessary for integrating all UAS into the national airspace.
Another aspect to finalizing rules for UAS is adding more trained operators, which will help promote a culture of safety that has been of paramount importance to the aviation community since its beginning more than 100 years ago.
That’s why AUVSI, in partnership with the Academy of Model Aeronautics and the FAA, created ‘Know Before You Fly.’ This education campaign seeks to promote safe and responsible UAS flying for commercial, recreational and civil purposes by getting vital safety guidelines directly into the hands of operators. Launched in 2014, a number of organizations from both the manned and unmanned aviation community have joined the campaign to help spread the word, including Champaign-based companies Hobbico and Horizon Hobby.
With the next innovative use of UAS potentially just around the corner and a growing industry waiting to take off, we need to do all we can to support development of UAS technology by providing clear rules for those who want to use UAS. But the longer we take, the more our nation and Illinois risk losing their innovation edge, along with thousands of jobs and billions of dollars of economic impact.
Wynne is president and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.