Before the low hum of drones appear above American homes, therewill come ever-louder tones from defense and aerospace industrylobbyists pushing federal officials and lawmakers to bend to theirfirms’ wishes. In February, Congress mandated the FAA create rules to guidedomestic drone flights, clearing the way for what industryexecutives are betting will be a new revolution in Americanaerospace history. If the agency completes the guidelines, unmannedaircraft could be approved for use by private operators andlaw-enforcement agencies in a few years. But before defense and aerospace firms can cash in on theirexpected revolution, they have some work to do. “There is a major battle brewing over how the FAA writes theseregulations for domestic drone flights,” says Alex Bronsteinof First Street Research.
[ Gallery: The Expansion of the Drone .] That fight will cover what the regulations stipulate about whereand what for purposes drones can operate. The federal rules alsowill feature provisions mandating each unmanned aircraft meetcertain safety specs—and the safer aircraft have to be, themore expensive they are to build. Once the FAA completes the rules, engineers will handle the heavylifting on developing drones that are suitable for civil use. Buthigh-paid and well-connected Washington lobbyists are up first,charged with convincing FAA officials—and interestedlawmakers—to write the regulations in ways that will allowfirms to maximize their profits.
“Real power players of the defense industry have jumped out ofthe gates lobbying on this issue,” says Bronstein, pointing tofinancial disclosure data showing military contractors likeRaytheon, Bell Helicopter Textron and General Atomics have steppedup their lobbying efforts. “These are big time heavyweights in the lobbyingindustry,” says Bronstein. “In this day of defense budget cuts, this is one of fewemerging markets for these companies,” says Bronstein.”We can draw the conclusion that since this sector is growing,the domestic drones will be a bigger focal point for theirlobbying.” The firms that appear most interested in cashing in from sellingunmanned aircraft to the Department of Homeland Security, stategovernments and local police departments have well-oiled lobbyingoutfits. “General Atomics and Northrop Grumman are the dominant playersin the unmanned aircraft business, and their products are bettersuited to civil or commercial missions than those of othercompanies,” says Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute anda defense industry consultant. “Lockheed Martin makes high-endunmanned systems, but they are too secret to use in most civilapplications. Water Playground Equipment
Textron’s smaller unmanned systems may have civilianuses.” As the battle heats up, it is unclear whether the FAA has a firmgrasp of the information tidal wave coming its way, or the abilityto separate facts from what would be best for shareholders andexecutives. The Coming Drone Revolution: What You Should Know } “This is not something the FAA is accustomed to,” saysBronstein. First Street Research released a report this week listing firmsthat have applied for authorization to operate drone aircraft inthe U.S. skies. China Lazy River Water Park
The report also highlights how much those firmsspent during 2011 to lobby government officials. Raytheon topped the list, spending nearly $7.4 million on lobbying.Next is Honeywell, which devoted nearly $7 million to the politicsof persuasion. Bell Helicopter Textron and L-3 were next, spending$4.6 million and $3.8 million respectively on lobbying. GeneralAtomics also wants drone-flight permission, and spent $2.3 millionon lobbying efforts. Amusement Park Water Slides Manufacturer
“It’s hard to say how much of that was spent just on thedomestic drones issue, because that’s not how disclosure laws arewritten,” Bronstein says. “But given the businessopportunity and how important these regulations will be, we nowit’s going to increase. And it’s going to increase in a bigway.” John T. Bennett covers national security and foreign policy for U.S.
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