WASHINGTON (AP) - Difficult to resolve safety and security obstacles may prevent the Federal Aviation Administration from meeting a deadline to allow civilian drones routine access to U.S. skies within three years, according to a report released Tuesday by a government watchdog.
The FAA is under pressure from Congress, industry and other government agencies to open domestic airspace to unmanned aircraft so that they can perform a seemingly endless list of tasks that are too expensive or too risky to use aircraft with human pilots. The biggest market is expected to be state and local police departments. Others interested in using drones are farmers who want help monitoring their thirsty crops, oil companies wanting to keep an eye on pipelines and even real estate agents needing to monitor their properties.
Industry forecasts have pegged the potential worldwide market for commercial and military drones at nearly $90 billion over the next decade, more than half of that in the U.S.
The FAA has already missed one deadline in a law passed by Congress last February requiring the agency to develop a system for civilian drones to fly safely in airspace, the report by the General Accounting Office said. The law requires FAA to fully integrate drones into airspace currently limited to manned aircraft by Sept. 30, 2015, and sets several interim deadlines for the agency to meet before then.
While FAA has made some progress in meeting those deadlines, "it is uncertain when the national airspace system will be prepared to accommodate" civilian drones, the report said.
For example, the law required the agency to establish a program by last month to allow unmanned aircraft access to the national airspace at six test sites around the country. The GAO said FAA is working on setting up the program, but has been delayed by concerns that data collected by the drones may violate people's privacy.
FAA officials have also been working for the past five years on regulations to allow commercial use of small drones, which are generally defined as weighing less than 55-pounds and flying at altitudes under 4,000 feet. The agency has drafted regulations that were initially expected to be published late last year, but have been repeatedly delayed. FAA officials told the GAO that Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood's office is still reviewing the draft. Proposed regulations now aren't expected to be published until next year, and it's unclear if the agency will be able to meet Congress' deadline August 2014 for the publication of final regulations, the report said.
FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said the agency "is working to ensure the safe integration of unmanned aircraft," including "gaining a better understanding of operational issues, such as training requirements, operational specifications and technology considerations."
The agency is also trying to establish the six test sites "as quickly as possible" while addressing privacy concerns, she said in an email.
Among other difficult-to-resolve issues is how to ensure drones won't collide with manned aircraft since there isn't a pilot on board that can "see and avoid" another plane, the report said. The potential for interruption in signals used by operators on the ground to control drones is also a concern.
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