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Confusing state, local regulations threaten drone industry

CTA president: In order to make the “drone future” a reality, we need comprehensive regulations that are consistent between federal and local agencies.

This spring, Disney received a patent for a "paintcopter," a drone that can paint buildings and rides. Earlier this year, a drone delivered a kidney for transplant for the first time ever. In March, a pioneering drone program began delivering blood and specimen samples between medical buildings in North Carolina. And in April, California-based Zipline launched drone vaccine delivery in Ghana, reaching 22 million people — the world's largest vaccine drone-delivery network.

The drone revolution is accelerating. And the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which is holding its fourth annual Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) symposium in Baltimore this week, has taken many steps to keep up. The recent medical drone advancements are promising, but the FAA must also exert its authority to avoid a patchwork of confusing and conflicting local rules and ensure a uniform, innovation-friendly framework. If that happens, these medical advancements will mark just a few indications of what the future could look like with drone technology in the coming years.

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Over 300 law enforcement, fire and emergency units across the country already have drones, and large-scale drone use is the future of first response. Drones with infrared and high-definition cameras can give aerial views of fires, for example, and go where humans can't — whether it's a skyscraper or a dense forest.

Drones can help search and rescue teams navigate waterways, mountains and woods to find people who are lost. They already saved hikers, missing children and the elderly, and they tracked lava spread after a Hawaii volcano eruption. Bomb squads are also beginning to use drones for investigation and bomb disposal.

In April, the FAA granted Alphabet's drone project, Wing, clearance to make drone delivery of food and other lightweight products in the U.S. In tests in Australia, drones completed Wing's delivery in 7 minutes, 36 seconds. In the near future, drones will deliver your pizza, and you will be able to order a product online and receive it in 13 minutes.

In the cities of the future, drones for traffic management will reduce congestion on the roads and monitor crowds for better policing. Streetlights will dim when pedestrian traffic slows, reducing energy costs. In the case of natural disasters such as hurricanes or tornadoes, drones will reach areas inaccessible by land and look for survivors. Drone use will also lead to greater sustainability and cut down on transportation emissions and cost; deliveries with small drones of lighter packages have lower emissions compared to ground-based diesel freight.

Drones provide unprecedented surveillance abilities, and home security companies are bringing home security surveillance drones to market. These drones can conduct night surveillance, detect motion and even detect ground vibrations. And while the military has used drones for over a decade, smaller, portable drones will become a staple for ground forces.

The new drone industry will mean more jobs and the potential for huge economic growth. According to Consumer Technology Association (CTA) research, not only have 98% of U.S. adults heard of drones, but more than one-third intend to purchase one within the next year. More, sales should climb to 3.4 million units (a 4% increase) and just over $1 billion in revenue (4% growth) in 2019.

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With demand this high, it's unsurprising that the FAA estimates there will be 452,000 registered unmanned aerial vehicles in U.S. airspace and more than 300,000 commercial drone pilots by 2022, if not earlier. An industry report from the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International found that the drone economy will create 100,000 U.S. jobs by 2025.

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In order to make the "drone future" a reality, we need comprehensive regulations that are consistent between federal and local agencies. Luckily, the administration and federal agencies have already made significant progress in drone legislation and policies. This year, for example, the FAA approved drone use at night and over people. But confusing local and state efforts threaten the growth of America's drone industry. Under the right rules, we can safely and seamlessly integrate drones into our everyday lives in the coming years.

Gary Shapiro (Twitter: @GaryShapiro) is president and CEO of the Consumer Technology Association, the U.S. trade association representing more than 2,200 consumer technology companies, and a New York Times best-selling author. He is the author of the book, "Ninja Future: Secrets to Success in the New World of Innovation." His views are his own.

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