Drones taking flight on K Street

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K Street is assembling to make sure drones will be able to take flight legally in the skies across the United States.

As the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rushes to create rules for the use of unmanned aircraft in the national airspace, lobbyists are mobilizing on behalf of a spectrum of interests — from farmers wanting to inspect crops to Hollywood studios.

Advocacy groups and law firms are reporting a burst of activity on drone regulations.

“It’s so widespread because it almost has a science-fiction element to it,” Jack Schenendorf told Megan Wilson of The Hill.

Schenendorf is a former George W. Bush staffer who worked with administration Transportation Department in 2001, now he is at Covington & Burling.

“We’re creating a regulatory scheme where there really isn’t one today,” he said. “The FAA regulates aircraft, but [drones are] a different animal … They’re going to be making a set of rules and regulations from the ground up, and that’s what has intrigued a lot of people.”

In response to client interest, many K Street firms — including McKenna Long & Aldridge and Holland & Knight — have set up practices exclusively for drone issues.

“Taking a view of the last several years, the discussion has gone from ‘Should we allow drones’ to ‘How do we integrate drones’ because they’re here,” said Holland & Knight’s David Whitestone, chair of the firm’s transportation industry practice, and part of the drone team.

Congress may have directed the FAA to approve the use of commercial drones by 2015, but it may be a deadline difficult to achieve, writes Wilson.

In February, Transportation Department inspector general Calvin Scovel told a House Transportation panel there are “significant technological barriers” blocking the integration of drones into airspace.

But the head of the FAA office in charge of unmanned aircraft said the agency is cooperating with “several industries” to authorize a limited commercial drone fleet ahead of finalizing agency’s overall rules.

Expedited rules would be crafted for operators involved in “filmmaking, power line inspection, precision agriculture and flare stack inspection,” according to a statement from Jim Williams of the Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) made at a conference for the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) held in Orlando.

This opens the door for K Street firms take on potential clients wanting a say in writing the broader rules.

Now a multibillion-dollar industry, the unmanned aircraft business have several organizations, companies and researchers all vying for a chance to unlock the technology’s potential..

In fact, about 35 groups have developed in the first three months of 2014, such as companies, universities and municipalities, which have reported lobbying on “drones” or (the preferred term of the industry) “unmanned aerial systems.”

Major players in the debate are defense contractors Northrop Grumman and Boeing, but the lobbying push on commercial drones goes well beyond the defense industry.

For example, one of Amazon’s lobbying firms, TwinLogic Strategies, is pushing for the potential benefits of deliveries by drones.

Drones could pose a problem for traditional mail services, which could see their business take a hit if drone deliveries become widespread. However, they have not dome much lobbying on the issue, according to financial disclosures.

Phil Ammann is a St. Petersburg-based journalist and blogger. With more than three decades of writing, editing and management experience, Phil produced material for both print and online, in addition to founding HRNewsDaily.com. His broad range includes covering news, local government and culture reviews for Patch.com, technical articles and profiles for BetterRVing Magazine and advice columns for a metaphysical website, among others. Phil has served as a contributor and production manager for SaintPetersBlog since 2013. He lives in St. Pete with his wife, visual artist Margaret Juul and can be reached at phil@floridapolitics.com and on Twitter @PhilAmmann.