In response to a Freedom of Information (FOI) request by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the FAA has released an updated list of public agencies that have applied for permission from the FAA to operate unmanned aerial systems (UAS). There are now at least 81 agencies that want to fly drones. Most are universities or other research-oriented institutions, and law-enforcement agencies make up the next largest group. Under current FAA rules, drones of all sizes can only be legally operated for non-hobby use through special authorization by the FAA. The list does not indicate which applications have been approved or rejected. The agency was mandated by Congress last year to start allowing more general use of small drones but the FAA said earlier this year it needs more time to figure out how to do that safely. Meanwhile, at least nine states are considering legislation to restrict drone use, one city has banned them entirely for at least two years, and industry groups, from the film industry to agriculture, are stamping their feet with impatience. Trying to reconcile the various factors and factions is the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, and Vice President Gretchen West told AVweb in a podcast interview that education is key to smoothing the process.
West said that thanks to the coincidental increased public awareness of civilian drones due to the congressional mandate and high-profile controversies like the one over the authorization of assassinations by drones, the perception of civilian drone use is skewed. “Most of the systems we’re talking about weigh less than 25 pounds,” she said. Those used for law enforcement have limited range and endurance that make them suitable only for short-term operations like tracking suspects or search and rescue and not the kind of persistent surveillance that seems to worry many opponents of the technology. She said it’s understandable that the FAA and many other countries are wrestling with regulating drones because the technology is relatively new and it’s very powerful.