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State governments can help U.S. speed up drone use

By Alwyn Scott

NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. state governments should help break a regulatory logjam that currently bans aerial drones from delivering packages, filming movies and monitoring crops and pipelines, officials from a state with extensive drone experience said on Sunday.

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) lacks rules to govern commercial drone activity, and is widely expected to miss a 2015 deadline for creating them because of their complexity. In the interim, state governments could help with key elements to take a major burden off the FAA.

"I believe states ought to step forward and help the FAA get through this critical phase," Stephen McKeever, secretary of science and technology for the state of Oklahoma, said in an interview from the Farnborough air show in England.

Amazon.com Inc last week joined a growing list of companies that are seeking exemptions to the FAA ban, asking for permission to test drone package delivery near its headquarters in Seattle.

Film makers, media companies and drone makers themselves have sought similar FAA exemptions in recent weeks, part of a growing push to ease restrictions on so-called small unmanned aerial systems (sUAS) and unlock what supporters estimate at potentially a $100 billion industry.

Critics say toy-sized aircraft can invade privacy and threaten safety, and have called for a go-slow approach.

McKeever and Oklahoma state Commerce Secretary Larry Parman said state universities can quickly develop pilot training courses, for example, and use state agencies to certify them.

States also can work with insurers on liability policies. The moves would dovetail with more substantial national rules that would be introduced later.

Oklahoma officials are planning to offer help to the FAA, but it's unclear if the FAA will accept it, the officials said.

"The FAA certainly needs some help in this struggle," McKeever said. "They're in a very difficult position."

The FAA has said it is writing draft rules for small drones, weighing under 55 pounds and is working hard to get them into effect. FAA officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Sunday.

Oklahoma is part of an international consortium coordinating on drone testing and rules, known as ICATS, that includes Canada, France and Britain. The aim is to help drones operate across borders and under similar protocols. France and Britain are ahead of the United States in developing rules, McKeever said.

Parman said heat sensors, radio identification chips and other technologies have wide application in drones as soon as users "connect the dots", and that will create more pressure for liberalizing drone use.

The drone industry is set for a modern-day land rush, similar to when Oklahoma opened to settlers in 1889, the officials said.

"The starting pistol is in the hands of the FAA but they've not fired it yet," McKeever said. "So there's lots of frustration."

(Editing by Mark Potter)

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