(Adds detail about rule and corporate response to exemptions)
WASHINGTON, Oct 1 (Reuters) - The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration has received nearly a dozen new applications to allow commercial use of unmanned aircraft over the past week, and it plans to publish draft rules to allow broader use by the end of the year, the top agency official for the program said on Wednesday.
The agency has received a total of 57 exemption applications and approved six for film and TV production companies last week, leaving 51 pending, Jim Williams, manager of the FAA’s office of unmanned aircraft systems integration, said at an industry conference.
That’s up from 40 applications that the agency said were pending when it approved last week the first exemptions for commercial use in the continental U.S.
Williams said the FAA plans to release draft rules for small unmanned aircraft by the end of the year and he is talking with counterparts in the United Kingdom where rules for unmanned aircraft use have been on the books for about two years.
The rules are taking time because of concerns about safety and privacy raised by burgeoning use of small unmanned aircraft.
“I‘m working very closely with the UK and informing our rulemaking effort based on their experience,” Williams said.
Small cameras, lightweight batteries and wireless technology have touched off a boom in the use of small unmanned planes and helicopters in agriculture, media, mining and other fields. . While the FAA still bans commercial uses of the aircraft, last week it granted six television and movie production companies permission to use the small, remotely piloted aircraft to shoot scenes on closed sets.
Williams said that even when exemptions are granted, the FAA requires companies that want to use drones for commercial purposes to get authorization, a routinely used process that allows a use that doesn’t conform with current rules.
Even if draft rules are released this year, industry experts expect final rules will not be in effect for at least two years.
So approval of exemptions is the way to get FAA’s blessing before the rules are finished.
Before the exemptions last week, some big companies thought a “gray area” existed that they might exploit. “There were going to be many thousands of these aircraft operating without FAA approval,” said aerospace consultant John McGraw, also at the conference, organized by the Air Traffic Controllers Association.
Now, with exemptions granted, insurance companies are telling potential users to get exemptions so they are on clear legal ground. “It draws a line between what is authorized and what is not authorized,” McGraw said.
Reporting by Alwyn Scott; Editing by Cynthia Osterman