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 authorization, 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."