Tech, Media Companies Form Drone Lobby

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By Stephanie Beasley

May 3 — A variety of businesses are excited that the Federal Aviation Administration is nearing completion of regulations that would allow them to use drones commercially. But many of them don't have a clear idea of how they'll use the unmanned aircraft once it's legal to do so and that's a big problem, according to drone industry representatives.

Meeting industry needs is the objective of the Commercial Drone Alliance—a lobby group launched May 3 by Gretchen West, a senior adviser for technology and innovation at Hogan Lovells, and firm partner Lisa Ellman.

Founding board members for the Alliance include: Cisco Systems Inc., AirMap Inc., LIFT Technologies, CNN, and technology company Measure.

West and Ellman are veteran drone advocates. Prior to joining Hogan Lovells, West was executive vice president of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI). She also was on the board for the Small UAV Coalition. Ellman, a former adviser on drone policy for the Obama administration, now heads the unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) practice at Hogan Lovells.

West says it's time companies in the infrastructure, agriculture, and media industries, among others, really consider how drone use might benefit them. Those companies also need to create a dialogue with lawmakers who are primarily hearing from drone-manufacturer-led groups about the technology's potential.

A Centralized Voice

“The Commercial Drone Alliance gives the drone industry a powerful, centralized voice so that industry can be well represented in legislative and regulatory matters that affect the use of machines for the enterprise,” said Brandon Torres Declet chief executive officer of Measure. “Aerial data collected by drones offer a broad range of benefits that can improve efficiency and reduce cost, but the regulatory road map to operating at scale is still unclear.”

It also would be helpful if potential drone users had a better a communication channel to manufacturers, who should be aware of what features would be most useful to users, West told Bloomberg BNA.

“I don't think that end users understand the long-term value of drones,” said West. “There's a bit of a disconnect between what's being manufactured and what users want. I don't know that end users even know what they want.”

The Regulatory Landscape

The FAA is in the last stages of completing regulations that would permit the use of commercial drones weighing 55 pounds or less. The agency sent the rule to the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs for a final interagency review on April 20. The FAA has said it expects to issue a final small UAS rule by June.

The rule would limit drone flights to the operator's line of sight, to no higher than 500 feet in altitude and to daylight hours. Several companies, including Amazon Inc., have tried to sway the FAA to do away with some of the proposed regulations, particularly the line-of-sight restriction. West said it is unlikely that the FAA would make such a significant change at this point in the process. However, the Alliance will keep a close eye on another rule the FAA is developing, which would allow drones to fly in populated areas. The FAA has signaled that rule, which deals primarily with micro drones, will revisit the line-of-sight issue as it broadly applies to drones, West said.

The Alliance also is following congressional activity around FAA reauthorization legislation. The Senate-passed legislation (H.R. 636), which would renew spending for the FAA for 18 months, includes drone-related provisions that among other things would allow pipeline and facilities companies to use unmanned aircraft to inspect their facilities (See previous story, 04/14/16).

To contact the reporter on this story: Stephanie Beasley in Washington sbeasley@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Heather Rothman at hrothman@bna.com

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