FAA considering streamlined approval process for small drones

Flights of small drones for filmmaking, utilities inspections and farming could get quicker approval

U.S. aviation regulators said they are considering a streamlined approval process for flights of small unmanned drones for filmmaking, utilities inspections, farming and other low-risk operations.

With the first regulation allowing commercial drone flights at least a year away, the Federal Aviation Administration is looking at ways to grant approvals for limited applications before then, said Jim Williams, chief of the agency's unmanned aircraft division. The FAA is already fielding requests, he said in a speech in Orlando, Fla., on Tuesday.

Though such flights aren't yet permitted, businesses have been using drones to film sporting events, promote real estate and map land. Industries including agriculture, filmmaking and inspections of utilities and oil and gas facilities have approached the agency and are considering asking for a formal process for expedited approvals to fly, Williams said.

"We applaud the FAA for working collaboratively with the industry and other stakeholders," Michael Toscano, president and chief executive of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, said in a statement.

The AUVSI, which sponsored the conference at which Williams spoke, has estimated that the unmanned aircraft industry will generate 100,000 jobs and $82 billion in economic impact once the FAA begins approving commercial operations.

So far, the agency hasn't granted any approvals for commercial flights in the U.S. as it weighs safety standards for construction of drones and qualifications of pilots.

It expects to propose a rule in November allowing commercial drones weighing less than 55 pounds.

The FAA is still evaluating how it would grant swifter approvals for small drones in situations that wouldn't raise safety concerns, Williams said.

The AUVSI, along with groups representing interests including ski areas and farmers, wrote to the FAA last month seeking the expedited permit process. Congress in a 2012 law created a process through which the FAA can grant permits for commercial flights deemed to be low-risk.

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