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By David Morgan and Deepa Seetharaman
WASHINGTON/SAN FRANCISCO, Feb 23 (Reuters) - Businesses hoping to capitalize on the commercial potential of drones are preparing to push back against proposed regulations that would strictly limit how the aircraft can be used.
During a 60-day public comment period on the rules, lobbyists representing a range of industries, from Internet giants Amazon.com Inc and Google Inc to aerospace firms and the news media, say they will try to convince regulators that cutting-edge technologies make some of the limitations proposed last week by the Federal Aviation Administration unnecessary.
Spending on lobbying by special interests that list drones as an issue surged from $20,000 in 2001 to $35 million in 2011 to more than $186 million in 2014, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks lobbying activity. And the proposed rules provide a new focus of lobbying efforts.
If approved as written, the new FAA rules would lift the current near-ban on flying drones for commercial purposes, but its restrictions would make many business applications, such as package delivery, unfeasible.
Among other constraints, the proposed rules would limit commercial drones to an altitude of 500 feet, allow flights only during daytime hours and require operators to keep the aircraft in their sights at all times. Drones could not be flown near airports or directly over humans. Officials say these precautions are needed for safety.
But drone makers and other firms with a stake in unmanned aircraft technology say they are already working on features that would allow drones to “sense and avoid” obstacles including other aircraft and prevent link disruptions that could cause a drone to lose contact with ground operations.
For example, Amazon.com is developing autonomous drones that would navigate via GPS and use redundant safety mechanisms and sensor arrays to avoid accidents as part of a “Prime Air” drone delivery service it hopes to launch.
Industry representatives say they will use the 60-day comment period to try to convince regulators that breakthrough safety features could make drone flights safe and dependable.
“This is the chance for all the parties who think the FAA got it wrong to come forward and say why,” said Jack Schenendorf, a former House Transportation Committee staff member who now works for law firm Covington & Burling.
The current ban on most commercial drone flights will stay in place until the FAA finalizes its proposed rules — which could take anywhere from nine months to three years. During that period, companies can continue to apply for exemptions to use drones under strict rules. But the FAA has so far granted only 28 of more than 325 exemption requests, according to government documents.
Amazon, which applied for an exemption to allow outdoor testing at its own U.S. facilities last summer, says it has not yet received approval from the agency. It has been testing a number of drone configurations at facilities in Washington state, Britain and Israel. But only in the Britain has the company been able to conduct outdoor tests that it says are vital to its goal of developing a prototype that can be demonstrated to the FAA.
Meanwhile, a coalition of news media companies including NBC, the New York Times and Thomson Reuters hopes to test news-gathering drones in coming months at an FAA site in Virginia.
Separate forecasts by government and industry officials expect businesses to invest nearly $90 billion in drones worldwide over the next 10 years, as the technology takes root in hundreds of markets that now rely on manned flights or ground operations for activities ranging from pipeline inspections to aerial photography.
The number of companies and groups involved in drone lobbying now exceeds 50. Senate documents show a broad range of parties from high-tech and aerospace manufacturers to electric utilities, realtors, filmmakers, universities, labor unions, state governments and broadcasters.
Business interests have a potentially powerful lever in Congress, which must reauthorize the FAA’s funding and regulatory direction by the end of September. That process allows lawmakers to direct regulatory agencies to take specific actions. For example, the last reauthorization in 2012 directed the FAA to pursue rulemaking on drones.
Some influential allies in Congress have already begun questioning the proposed rules. U.S. Senator Charles E. Schumer said last week the FAA’s “line of sight” rule appears to be a “concerning limitation on commercial usage, and this proposed rule should be modified.”
Regulators may be difficult to convince, however.
“The FAA is going to be very conservative because they don’t want an airliner hitting one of these things,” said Phil Finnegan, director of corporate analysis at research firm the Teal Group. (Reporting by David Morgan in Washington and Deepa Seetharaman in San Francisco, Editing by Soyoung Kim, Joe White and Sue Horton)