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Push for more drones in U.S. comes from drone makers

By G.Martin and V.Novak

The federal government is rushing to open America’s skies to tens of thousands  of drones — pushed to do so by a law championed by manufacturers of the unmanned  aircraft.

The drone makers have sought congressional help to speed their entry into a  domestic market valued in billions of dollars.
The 60-member House of Representatives’ “drone caucus” — including the co-chairman, Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo — has helped push that agenda. Over the past four years, caucus members have drawn nearly $8 million in drone-related campaign contributions, an investigation by Hearst Newspapers and the Center for Responsive Politics shows.

The Federal Aviation Administration has been flooded with applications from police departments, universities and private corporations, all seeking to use drones that range from devices the size of a hummingbird to full-sized aircraft like those used by the U.S. military to target al-Qaida operatives in Pakistan and elsewhere.

Domestic use of drones began with limited aerial patrols of the nation’s borders in 2004 by Customs and Border Patrol authorities. CBP has 10 drones operating along U.S. borders, including two stationed in South Texas and two operating out of Arizona. Other CBP Predator drones are based in Grand Forks, N.D., and Cocoa Beach, Fla.

But their use hasn’t been trouble-free.

In June 2010, a Predator flying to Texas from Arizona experienced a “lost-link” incident, when the craft and operators lost radio contact for roughly 30 seconds. That forced the drone to automatically drop to a lower altitude until recovery.

The National Transportation Safety Board and congressional aides said the incident occurred when the radio signal to the drone was blocked by severe weather.
In 2006, a Predator crashed near the border city of Nogales, Ariz., just missing homes on a hillside. The NTSB ruled that the cause of the crash was human error.
The industry and its allies have pushed for more drone missions, leading to provisions in the FAA Modernization and Reform Act, signed into law Feb. 14.

The law requires the FAA to fully integrate the unmanned aerial vehicles into national airspace by September 2015. And it contains a series of interim deadlines leading up to that one: This month, the agency was supposed to produce a comprehensive plan for the integration, and in August it was required to have a plan for testing at six sites in the United States.

Neither plan has been issued.

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