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Commercial Drones Take Off Around the Globe; U.S. Lags

By Joan Lowy

WASHINGTON -- A small, four-rotor drone hovered over Washington Nationals players for a few days during spring training in Florida last month, taking publicity photos impossible for a human photographer to capture. But no one got the Federal Aviation Administration's permission first.

"No, we didn't get it cleared, but we don't get our pop flies cleared either and those go higher than this thing did," a team official said when contacted by The Associated Press. The drone flights ceased the next day. The official wasn't authorized to speak publicly and asked not to be named.

The agency bars commercial use of drones no matter how seemingly benign. The lone exception is an oil company that has been granted permission to fly drones over the Arctic Ocean, and it took an act of Congress to win that concession.

FAA officials say rules to address the special safety challenges associated with unmanned aircraft need to be in place before they can share the sky with manned aircraft. The agency has worked on those regulations for the past decade, and is still months and possibly years away from issuing final rules for small drones, which are defined as those weighing less than 55 pounds. Rules for larger drones are even further off.

But tempting technology and an eager marketplace are outrunning the aviation agency's best intentions. Photographers, real estate agents, moviemakers and others are hurrying to embrace the technology. Drones have been used to photograph the two apartment buildings that collapsed in New York City this past week and a car crash in Connecticut. The AP, in fact, is one of several news organizations studying the possible use of drones.

Unless FAA officials receive a complaint or chance upon a news story that mentions drone flights, they have little ability to find out about violations. The ban was further undercut this month when a federal judge dismissed the only fine the FAA has imposed on a commercial drone operator. The judge said the agency can't enforce regulations that don't exist.

The FAA, which contends it controls access to the national air space, has appealed.

The use of commercial drones, most of them small, is starting to spread to countries where authorities have decided the aircraft presents little threat if operators follow a few safety rules.

The drone industry and some members of Congress are worried the United States will be one of the last countries, rather than one of the first, to gain the economic benefits of the technology.

"We don't have the luxury of waiting another 20 years," said Paul McDuffee, vice president of drone-maker Insitu of Bingen, Wash., a subsidiary of Boeing (BA - Get Report). "This industry is exploding. It's getting to the point where it may end up happening with or without the FAA's blessing."

In Japan, the Yamaha Motor Company's RMAX helicopter drones have been spraying crops for 20 years. The radio-controlled drones weighing 140 pounds are cheaper than hiring a plane and are able to more precisely apply fertilizers and pesticides. They fly closer to the ground and their backwash enables the spray to reach the underside of leaves.

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