March 24, 2015 / 2:43 PM / in 3 years

U.N. aviation agency mulls advising on domestic drone rules

MONTREAL (Reuters) - The United Nations aviation agency is mulling whether to take the unusual step of helping countries draft domestic rules for integrating drones into regular airspace, an official said.

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) is already working on new safety standards for 2018 on larger unmanned aircraft that can fly across borders.

The agency is expected to decide by the end of a symposium that closes in Montreal on Wednesday whether to provide guidance on the domestic use of smaller drones for commercial purposes like moviemaking and surveying.

“It’s not something that we’ve typically done but we could do it,” Nancy Graham, the outgoing director of ICAO’s air navigation bureau, told Reuters at the symposium on Monday “We’re on schedule (with the standards for larger drones). The question here is, ‘Is it enough?’ - recognizing that the domestic environment is moving much faster.”

“The little tiny ones are evolving much faster than the big ones,” she said.

Some fear the creation of a “patchwork” of domestic drone regulations that would differ from country to country, confusing operators and manufacturers in an industry that analyst Teal Group predicts will evolve into a $91 billion market in 10 years.

“You have local laws everywhere, and they are different,” Graham said. “It makes it harder for a company to sell in Argentina and then in Hong Kong.”

While ICAO cannot interfere with state sovereignty, it sets safety standards that typically become regulatory requirements in its 191 member countries.

On Monday, aerospace manufacturers urged countries to work with ICAO to come up with common global safety standards for drone use, such as licensing and pilot qualifications.

“We shouldn’t drag our feet on developing a global regulatory systems,” said Marion Blakey, chairwoman of the International Coordinating Council of Aerospace Industries.

The manufacturing trade group represents large airplane makers like Boeing Co and Airbus.

Federal Aviation Administration deputy administrator Michael Whitaker said the U.S. aviation agency also favored harmonized international standards.

“This is such a new area, we want to make sure that we’re not going to have operating standards that are going to conflict, particularly when you have cross-border operations,” he told Reuters. 

The FAA, which has proposed rules for commercial drone use now under review in the United States, has been quietly working with Transport Canada to come up with common safety standards for drones weighing under 25 kilograms (55 pounds) to facilitate cross-border commerce between the two countries.

Editing by Jeffrey Hodgson

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