FAA Aims to 'Seamlessly Integrate' Drones Into National Airspace; Industry Report: $82.1B Economic Benefit to U.S.

By Brittany M. Hughes | August 19, 2015 | 7:09 AM EDT

Drones increasingly are used for military and law enforcement operations, photographing real estate, assisting farmers in land and crop surveillance, disaster assistance, news gathering and movie making; and for some citizens, flying drones is a hobby. (AP File Photo)

(CNSNews.com) – The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is aiming to “seamlessly integrate” unmanned aerial systems (UASs)--AKA drones--into the U.S. national airspace, according to a recent report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

The report noted that the economic benefit to the United States from doing so could be as great as $82.1 billion over the next ten years.

“The Federal Aviation Administration’s goal is to seamlessly integrate all UAS operations into the national airspace,” the GAO report said, adding that the FAA is “developing regulations to allow routine UAS commercial operations.”

"However," said the GAO, "FAA may not issue a final rule for UASs until late 2016 or early 2017."

In its report that was published July 16, the GAO cited a 2013 study from the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International that sought "to document the economic benefits to the United States (U.S.) once Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) are integrated into in the National Airspace System (NAS)."

"The economic impact of the integration of UAS into the NAS will total more than $13.6 billion in the first three years of integration and will grow sustainably for the foreseeable future, cumulating to more than $82.1 billion between 2015 and 2025," said the AUVSI report.

A GAO analyst also pointed out to CNSNews.com  that a report published Aug. 14 by the Teal Group estimates that the "worldwide production" of drones will total $93 billion over the same period.

“Teal Group's 2015 market study estimates that UAV production will soar from current worldwide UAV production of $4 billion annually to $14 billion, totaling $93 billion in the next ten years,” said a press release put out by the group.

The FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 directed FAA to safely integrate UASs into the national airspace. But as of today, the FAA still approves all UAS operations on a case-by-case basis, GAO noted.

The report also noted that the U.S. lags other countries in setting rules for UAS operations: Canada and Australia have regulations pertaining to UASs that have been in place since 1996 and 2002, respectively.

Drones increasingly are used for military and law enforcement operations, photographing real estate, assisting farmers in land and crop surveillance, disaster assistance, news gathering and movie making; and for some citizens, flying drones is a hobby.

However, the widespread and varied use of drones has produced growing concerns, especially about potential interference with larger aircraft.

“The safety of the national airspace is threatened on a nearly daily basis by UASs operating without approval,” the report said. It noted that between February and March of 2015 alone, the FAA reported 97 incidents involving potentially problematic drone use, including drones nearly colliding with commercial aircraft and UASs flying above heavily populated football stadiums.

Earlier this month, two airplanes flying near John F. Kennedy International Airport came within 100 feet of drones while attempting to land. That incident comes only a few months after the FAA announced plans to speed up the issuing of permits for commercial drones use in response to complaints from companies such as Amazon.com, who want to explore using drones for package deliveries, for example.

In response to recent increases in commercial and personal drone use, the FAA is exploring standardized regulations for the use of drones to “integrate” them into the already heavy amounts of traffic occupying U.S. airspace. This includes regulations for the use of drones that are flown within sight of the operator.

In addition, “FAA’s long-term goal is to pursue research and development that will advance technology in these critical areas, such as detect and avoid, and supporting beyond-visual-line-of-sight operations,” the report said.

Other countries, such as Canada and the United Kingdom, already have finalized regulations for the use of drones, the GAO noted. However, “airspace complexity is one aspect in which the United States differs from other countries,” the report said.

According to the FAA, U.S. airspace is the busiest in the world, where UASs, after integration, would share space with more than 300,000 general aviation aircraft. Introducing potentially large numbers of UAS by hobbyists, farmers, law enforcement agencies, and others would add to this complexity, GAO said.

In addition to collecting independent research from six authorized, non-government UAS test sites across the country, the FAA also awarded a grant to Georgia Tech Research Corporation to research the “effect of UAS collisions on other airborne and ground-based objects,” the GAO reported. Similarly, the FAA provided the University of North Dakota with a grant to study whether or not UASs “could be deadly,” GAO added.

“According to FAA, both studies will support ongoing UAS research,” the report stated.

The Departmennt of Transportation told GAO that the FAA also is conducting research into the "environmental impacts" of drone integration, including "the applicability of noise standards."

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