Will Bureaucracy Keep The U.S. Drone Industry Grounded? : All Tech Considered Tough federal aviation rules and public backlash against drones have raised worries that the U.S. unmanned aerial vehicle industry will be left behind foreign competitors. Developers say the U.S. light drone industry is being overtaken by manufacturers in Israel and Australia.
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Will Bureaucracy Keep The U.S. Drone Industry Grounded?

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Will Bureaucracy Keep The U.S. Drone Industry Grounded?

Will Bureaucracy Keep The U.S. Drone Industry Grounded?

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Many Americans have been raising questions about the widespread use of drones, but the debate looks very different when you talk to people in the drone industry - especially those selling unmanned aircraft for civilian use. They complain the debate is hurting business.

NPR's Martin Kaste has our Business Bottom Line.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Paul Applewhite worked for 10 years at aerospace companies like McDonnell Douglas and Sikorski. Now he has own startup, Applewhite Aero, and he's working on his own planes.


KASTE: Smaller-scale planes, to be sure.

PAUL APPLEWHITE: This is a three-pound Styrofoam airplane. We bought the airframe and the motor off of an online hobby shop.

KASTE: Really, this is a toy, but with one very important difference: this toy can fly itself.

APPLEWHITE: To make it into a UAV, we add this little circuit board in here and that's kind of what makes it autonomous.

KASTE: He hopes to sell this mini UAV to aid agencies. In the field, medical teams could use it to fly tissue samples back to a lab. They'd just punch in the coordinates, and the plane would find its way. It could go up to 20 miles. There's just one problem: Applewhite is not allowed fly it. Right now there's a nationwide ban on the commercial use of UAVs. He is trying to get a test permit, but that's an arduous process.

APPLEWHITE: We started applying for the permits to fly this vehicle last August. We've generated a 62-page document that we've submitted to the federal government.

KASTE: To fly what essentially to the layman looks like a hobby airplane.


KASTE: In fact, if Applewhite were just a hobbyist, he wouldn't need FAA permission. It's perfectly legal for you to fly a UAV right now, within certain guidelines, as long as you're not in business. The FAA is supposed to come up with a plan for integrating commercial drones into civilian airspace, but it has until September 2015. In the meantime, Applewhite says, American companies like his are losing ground to overseas rivals.

APPLEWHITE: A lot of our universities that are developing training programs, they're buying a vehicle from Latvia, which is an outstanding vehicle, but I think I could compete on that. I just can't test mine in the United States.

KASTE: Heidi Williams understands this frustration, but she defends the FAA's take-it-slow approach.

HEIDI WILLIAMS: You know, their primary mission is ensuring that the airspace environment that we all operate in is safe.

KASTE: She is the VP for air traffic services and modernization at the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association - and she's a pilot. Styrofoam UAVs may look like toys, she says, but there's still a potential danger.

WILLIAMS: Things that are really tiny or small to see sometimes can be very close before you actually have time to see them and react and avoid them.

KASTE: True enough, say the UAV developers, but the danger would recede if they just kept their aircraft low and away from airports - the same rules that already govern the flying toys. Some developers believe the FAA's restrictiveness is really a response to public hostility toward UAVs. Sterling Cripps runs a UAV testing site in southern Alberta. It's already hosted one American drone company and it's looking for more business. Cripps marvels at how onerous the rules have become south of the border.

STERLING CRIPPS: Here's the hypocrisy, is that our governments allow us to fly UAVs over war-stricken, terrified civilians in other lands, but the moment you bring them back to our precious neck of the woods, where we're not getting shot at, where we have insurance, we have lawyers, they won't allow it.

KASTE: But it looks like they will allow it eventually. Congress has directed the FAA to set up six sites around the country for UAV testing. But those sites won't even be chosen until the end of this year. Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle.

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