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FAA takes slow flight path to domestic UAV approval.

WITH MORE THAN 50 U.S. companies involved in the unmanned aerial vehicle market, the pressure for the Federal Aviation Administration to approve their use in domestic air space is growing.

Progress, although slow, is being made, said the senior FAA official in charge of approving applications. As for the day when unmanned drones ply the skies with the same ease as general or commercial manned aviation, don't hold your breath, he told a conference of eager industry representatives.

The United States is in "day one" of the transformative technology, said Anthony Ferrante, director of the FAA's air traffic oversight service. "We really want to evolve this technology, but we want to do that under the 'do no harm' policy," he said at an Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems international conference.

While UAVs have proven their worth in Iraq, Afghanistan and other combat theaters, the FAA has control of domestic air space. Regulations for UAV use are not in place, and won't be anytime soon. The agency only set up an office to oversee the budding industry last year. As of March, the office hadn't filled all its positions because Congress hadn't approved a budget for 2007.

So far the only way to fly a UAV outside restricted air space is to get a "certification of authorization" from the office or an "experimental" license. These are only good for individual aircraft, not models or programs. For example, when Bell Helicopter Textron's Eagle Eye rotorcraft being developed for the Coast Guard crashed last year, the company lost its FAA approval.

Because of the FAA restrictions, and the fact that there are no federal regulations yet, UAV use in domestic air space has been rare. Some saw limited action doing damage assessment during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has flown a few into tropical storms to gather weather data. U.S. Customs and Border Protection has employed a Predator B to patrol the Southern border, and will move the program up north this summer Last year, CBP's first drone crashed in the Arizona desert. No one on the ground was injured, but the accident didn't help the industry's reputation,

Law enforcement is among the many sectors clamoring to use UAVs.

Ferrante said one company has been marketing a small surveillance aircraft and telling local police departments that FAA regulations written in 1981 governing the use of model airplanes paves the way for their use,

Not so, he said. A notice clarifying the rule was published in the Federal Register in February.

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Title Annotation:SECURITY BEAT: Homeland Defense Briefs
Comment:FAA takes slow flight path to domestic UAV approval.(SECURITY BEAT: Homeland Defense Briefs)
Author:Magnuson, Stew
Publication:National Defense
Date:Apr 1, 2007
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