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Drone Industry Begs Government To Act As It Loses Out On BILLIONS

Producers of commercial drones say the government’s failure to regulate the technology for civilian use is costing the U.S. billions of dollars in economic activity annually.

The Small UAV Coalition, an industry trade association, hosted a tech fair in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday during which experts outlined the potential benefits of civilian drone technology and called on lawmakers and regulators to authorize their use.

Michael Drobac, the coalition’s executive director, noted that there are currently more than 500,000 small, unmanned aerial vehicles in the United States, making it important for the industry to have “a voice before lawmakers and regulators,” so it can offer a “pathway to safe use.”

In 2012, Congress ordered the Federal Aviation Administration to develop and implement regulations for commercial drones by 2015, but the agency has yet to do so. Even after the FAA issues its guidelines, a one-year public comment period will further delay their implementation—possibly until 2017. (RELATED: FAA Poised to Miss Deadline for Drone Regulations)

Until the regulations are finalized, individual hobbyists are subject to the same restrictions that apply to model aircraft, but commercial use requires a “Special Airworthiness Certificate,” of which the FAA has granted just 14. (RELATED: FAA Tells Amazon ‘No Drones!’)

In contrast, countries in Europe and Asia are embracing drone technology. According to Lucas Van Oostrum, CTO of Aerialtronics, France has already issued over 600 commercial drone permits, and the United Kingdom issued more than 1,000 permits in 2013 alone.

In countries that allow their use, he claimed, drones are already helping companies increase efficiency, cut costs and even save lives by performing dangerous jobs. In Japan, for instance, unmanned helicopters are used extensively for crop dusting, while in Holland they have enabled farmers to increase crop yields by over 50 percent.

“The FAA is slowly opening the skies to drones, but not fast enough,” Van Oostrum said, pointing out that the agency’s failure to authorize drones for commercial use costs the U.S. about $10 billion per year in lost economic activity.

Conversely, industry estimates suggest that if the government is able to implement regulations this year, economic benefits could reach $82.1 billion by 2025. (RELATED: Drone Ban Will Stifle Research, Professors Warn)

FAA officials say the task of regulating commercial drones is complicated by the fact that the U.S. has the busiest airspace in the world, and that they are simply trying “to make sure we get it right the first time,” according to CBS.

Concerned with the FAA’s slow progress, though, some members of Congress are exploring legislative options, such as threatening to withhold authorization of the agency if it does not act soon. (RELATED: Sen. Markey: We Need Protection Before Commercial Drones Take Off)

Democratic Rep. Earl Blumenauer, who has been a consistent advocate for alternative transportation since first being elected in 1996, asserted that, “the train has left the station” with respect to commercial drones, and “the question now is how soon we can implement a system that lets us take advantage of the technology.”

In the past, he said, Congress “has put in place some mechanisms that actually discouraged innovation,” such as regulations on alcohol production that continue to inhibit the growth of craft breweries, and it should avoid doing so again with respect to drones.

Blumenauer advised lobbyists for the industry to communicate the “transformational” nature of drones to lawmakers, but to “put it in simple language so Congress can understand.”

Follow Peter Fricke on Twitter

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