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Drones Are Ready to Save Lives, But U.S. Regulations Keep Them on the Ground

Image: Robot rescuers

Robot swarms flying high over a rescue crew in remote locations could give the first responders a communication network to keep them connected. Laboratory of Intelligent Systems / EPFL

When the U.S. said this week it was sending 80 military service members to Nigeria to oversee drone aircraft searching for hundreds of abducted schoolgirls, it raised an obvious question: Why isn't that common here in America?

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The reason is that the Federal Aviation Administration "never intended to regulate model aircraft," said Garry Richard Lane, a specialist in aviation law in New Hampshire, where legislation to restrict the use of drones failed last month.

Wait — "model aircraft"?

Saddled with definitions arrived at long before small remote-controlled aircraft became capable of carrying sophisticated equipment like high-definition cameras and professional sound gear, FAA regulations still consider unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, the playthings of hobbyists.

And federal regulations allow the use of hobby aircraft only below 400 feet in remote areas away from any airport and only for non-commercial purposes.

That means sophisticated rescue drones costing tens of thousands of dollars or more are regulated exactly like the $120 FunJet Ultra Kit you might find at your local Hobby Lobby.

UAVs are allowed in national airspace only under "very controlled conditions," the FAA says. Even police have to wait for a special "certificate of authorization" before they can send up a drone in a time-is-ticking search for a missing person.

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The regulatory myopia could have tragic implications, said Lane, a licensed pilot

If rescue crews have a drone in the back of a car, "They might find somebody within minutes alive, instead of dead by a helicopter" hours later, he told NBC News.

That's why a Texas volunteer search-and-rescue organization is suing the FAA after it ordered the group to stop using drones to find missing persons.

The organization, Texas EquuSearch Mounted Search and Recovery Team of Dickinson, calls camera-equipped model aircraft "the single most powerful search-and-rescue tool ... to save time during the crucial early hours of the search."

Related: FAA Search-and-Rescue Drone Suit Could Have Widespread Impact

Texas EquuSearch is a nonprofit, and it doesn't charge anything for use of its aircraft. "But it accepts donations, and in the FAA's view, that's a commercial activity," Lane said.

And the FAA makes little distinction between civilians and law enforcement.

"If a police department tries to do the same darn thing, they are also getting paid," Lane said, so "that is also considered commercial use by the FAA."

Congress has ordered the FAA to draw up new regulations that sensibly accommodate UAVs. But in its November status report (PDF) on the effort, the FAA called that "a significant challenge."

Just one critical component of any new FAA rules — publication of certification rules for pilots in drone-flying classes — could take until 2017, the agency said. Others might not be completed until 2026, the FAA projected.

Then there are the "security vetting for certification and training of UAS (unmanned air systems) related personnel, addressing cyber and communications vulnerabilities, and maintaining/enhancing air defense and air domain awareness capabilities in an increasingly complex and crowded airspace," the FAA said.

Lane is hoping the clamor of dozens of drone aviation companies that want to do business in the U.S. will expedite at least some form of interim regulation.

In a report it issued this month (PDF), the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, a Washington-based trade group, projected that fully integrating UAVs into the national air system would create more than 100,000 jobs and spin off $82 billion in economic impact within 10 years.

"There are all these companies that want to get into this market, but they can't," he said. "There's a lot of people putting pressure on the FAA. The pressure is there."

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Jim Williams, the FAA manager in charge of the project, said earlier this month that the agency is working with several industries to allow limited commercial operations before final rules are issued. But in remarks at the Small Unmanned Systems Business Exposition in San Francisco, he issued a new caution about the danger of allowing even small drones to share airspace with jetliners.

After a pilot reported a near-midair collision with a drone near the Tallahassee Regional Airport in Florida in March, "the pilot said that the [drone] was so close to his jet that he was sure he had collided with it," Williams said at the San Francisco convention. While no damage was found, "this may not always be the case," he added.

That's a legitimate concern, Lane said, and any FAA regulations could require an authorized drone operator "to already be a commercial aircraft pilot" on top of earning "some kind of UAV license."

Lane said he's "optimistic that the FAA will start approving something in the relatively near future — maybe the next few months." But the nature of regulatory review and approval means any new rules are "not going to be in effect for another year and a half" in the best of scenarios, he said.

Then there's the hurdle of public perception. The main fears are that a drone might fall on someone's head (which has happened in other countries) and most of all, privacy — which Lane said is a misplaced concern.

"This isn't about police wanting to have a drone hovering in your backyard watching you in your living room or swimming pool," he said.

Besides, there are much more effective ways for cops to snoop on you than with a drone.

"If I'm a police officer, I'm not going to do it with a drone," Lane said. "A propeller makes noise. You'd hear, so you're going to notice."

Lane acknowledged that the FAA is "in a hard position," because "there's a whole range of sizes and there's a whole range of uses."

"Part of the problem the FAA has is what are all of these uses and how do we create regulations for the Predator-size drones and the smaller drones?" he asked.

But "they should have anticipated some of this long ago," he said.

Related: Drone Swarms Could Be Lifesaver in Disasters

There have been success stories involving the use of drones at disaster scenes and in missing persons cases, but there is so much more potential if drones are unshackled, Lane said.

"The tech is there, but we're waiting for the FAA to catch up," he said. "They can save lives right now."