WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Federal Aviation Administration is seeking ways to speed up the approval process for commercial drone operations, but its efforts have been hindered by its lack of authority to review multiple applications on a group basis, the FAA chief said on Tuesday.
FAA Administrator Michael Huerta told a U.S. House aviation subcommittee that the agency could better address a backlog of 450 requests from companies seeking exemptions to use commercial drones if it could approve a class of applications that have similar circumstances.
The FAA recently proposed new regulations that would lift the current ban on most commercial drone flights, but the final rule-making could take anywhere from nine months to three years to finalize. During that period, companies can continue to apply for exemptions to use drones under strict rules.
The FAA has received about 450 exemption requests, Huerta said. But online government records show that only 28 companies have been granted exemptions so far.
“The agency has very limited ability to grant blanket exemptions to whole classes of users. So what that means is that we have to evaluate each application on its own individual merit," Huerta told the hearing.
“Anything that we can do that would enable us to look at classes of operators that have substantially identical facts or very similar characteristics could be quite helpful."
The exemption process is currently the only avenue for the private sector to gain permission to use drones. Companies awaiting approval include Internet giant Amazon.com, which wants the FAA to allow it to conduct outdoor drone tests at a facility in Washington state.
The companies have been lobbying the FAA to streamline the exemption process by potentially establishing templates for different industries.
Lawmakers also urged the FAA to move quickly to finalize the new rules so the United States does not fall behind other countries in an area that government and industry officials forecast will generate nearly $90 billion in new investment worldwide over the next 10 years.
“The estimate timeline of 2017 for finalization of the rule I think just seems too long,” said Representative Frank LoBiondo of New Jersey, the subcommittee's Republican chairman.
(Reporting by David Morgan in Washington; Editing by Dan Grebler)