In February, the Federal Aviation Administration proposed rules that are a good first step to create a friendly environment for commercial drone operators to get off the ground. The rules are based on the actual risk that the small, unmanned aircraft pose. However, finalizing the rules will take a couple of years, and companies would have to operate commercial drones within the line of sight of the operator and away from people, leaving activities like package delivery out of bounds.
As the FAA has demonstrated through its 10-year effort to regulate the commercial use of drones, rapidly evolving technology can easily outrun the regulatory process. Already, the US starts out behind in a growing industry as other countries have implemented and even revised their own rules. The delay and restrictions mean the commercial drone industry is developing elsewhere. And a few major US companies, like Google, are moving substantial portions of their drone research operations overseas. The US is leaving billions of dollars in economic growth on the table and giving other countries the benefit of coming to market first.
It is not too late to catch up. With reasonable and globally competitive regulations, the US could still become a leader in the commercial drone industry.
By 2035, the number of unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV, operations each year will surpass that of manned aircraft operations, according to the Volpe Center, the US Department of Transportation research arm. That is a profound change in the composition of aviation activity. Industry experts from the Teal Group to the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, or AUVSI, estimate the global drone market is worth $6 billion to $12 billion, and commercial drones account for about 10 percent. The Volpe Center forecasts the US commercial drone market will reach $5 billion annually by 2035.