Americans are suspicious of drones. Reports of the unmanned aerial vehicles' use in war zones have raised concerns about what they might do here at home. For instance, in Seattle earlier this year, a public outcry forced the police department to abandon plans for eye-in-the-sky UAV helicopters.
The backlash worries Paul Applewhite, an aerospace engineer with 10 years of experience at companies like McDonnell Douglas and Sikorsky. He now runs his own startup company, Applewhite Aero, in an industrial park on the south side of Seattle. Applewhite is developing drones — or UAVs, as the industry calls them. He shows off a 3-pound Styrofoam plane he has dubbed the Invenio.
"We bought the airframe and the motor off of an online hobby shop," he says. To make it a UAV, he added a GPS antenna and a circuit board that allows it to fly autonomously. He hopes to sell it to aid agencies; medical teams could use it to fly tissue samples back to a lab, for instance. They'd enter the coordinates, and the Invenio would find its way back.
That's the theory. The reality is, Applewhite can't know for sure what his plane can do, because he's not allowed fly it.
The Federal Aviation Administration bars the use of UAVs for commercial purposes. That means, even though it's perfectly legal for hobbyists to fly small UAVs, Applewhite may not, because he's in business.
He has applied for a special test permit, called a certificate of airworthiness, but that process has dragged on since last August.
"We've generated a 62-page document that we've submitted to the federal government," he says, and he assumes he'll have to meet personally with regulators in Washington, D.C., before he's allowed to make a few short flights with his modified toy.
"Quite frankly, I could do what I need to do in a cow pasture," he says. "I just need some legal and efficient way to test this aircraft."
Applewhite is quick to stress his respect for the FAA's thoroughness in the interest of safety. But in the case of lightweight experimental UAVs, he says, that thoroughness threatens to stifle startups like his — and perhaps a whole nascent industry. He says he's losing valuable time while potential customers go elsewhere.
"A lot of our universities that are developing [UAV] training programs, they're buying a vehicle from Latvia," he says. "I think I could compete on that, but I just can't test mine in the United States."
Developers say the U.S. light drone industry is being overtaken by manufacturers in Israel and Australia; Seattle's controversial police UAVs came from Canada.
The FAA won't comment on the permitting process for UAV tests. Heidi Williams, vice president for air traffic services and modernization at the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, defends the FAA's cautious approach.
"Their primary mission is ensuring that the airspace environment that we all operate in is safe," says Williams, who is also a pilot. "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."
UAV developers admit there's still no reliable way to "teach" small drones to avoid other aircraft, but they say there's little danger as long as they're tested at low altitudes, away from airports — the same rules that already apply to radio-controlled hobby aircraft.
Juris Vagners, a professor emeritus of aeronautics at the University of Washington, helped pioneer UAVs in the 1990s. "There was some paperwork, but it wasn't anything like what's going on today," he says. Now the permitting process verges on the absurd. During a recent application, he says, it took a couple of months to satisfy the FAA that the University of Washington is, in fact, a public institution.
Vagners blames the red tape on the public's hostility toward drones.
"As everyone can't help but be aware, there's the whole big flap about privacy issues," Vagners says. "And the approach that is being taken by the FAA is basically a one size fits all."
For example, commercial developers of 3-pound modified toy airplanes find themselves having to apply for an "N-number" — the same flying license plate that's required for Cessnas and 747s.
Some frustrated American companies are now taking their prototypes to Mexico and Australia for testing. In Canada, the Canadian Centre for Unmanned Vehicle Systems is offering access to a test site among the flat farm fields of southern Alberta. One American drone developer has already used the facility, which is run by Sterling Cripps. He marvels at the bureaucratic hurdles for UAVs, both in Canada and in the U.S.
"Here's the hypocrisy: 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," Cripps says.
Regulators say they will allow it — eventually. Congress has given the FAA until September 2015 to come up with a plan for integrating commercial UAVs to the domestic airspace. As part of that process, the FAA will pick six sites around the country for UAV testing. The sites are expected to be selected by the end of the year.
That's an eternity to UAV developers like Paul Applewhite. "We have a technology — we have an industry — that could be ours for the taking," Applewhite says. "We're losing it because we can't test the vehicles."
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
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.
(SOUNDBITE OF DRILLING)
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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.