WASHINGTON, March 15, 2016 -- Members of the Senate Small Business Committee expressed concerns at a recent hearing that government regulators may be moving too slowly in crafting rules for the commercial use of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), harming agriculture and other industries that see vast potential for drone technology.

The Federal Aviation Administration announced in 2014 that it would grant exemptions for certain low-risk commercial UAS applications. But to date, the FAA has received almost 13,000 requests to use drones commercially and has only granted about 3,900 exemptions, most of which are going to small businesses.

Committee Chairman David Vitter, R-La., said in his opening statement that FAA’s exemption system was the reason drones haven’t taken off in the U.S.

“It seems to me that the case-by-case basis analysis is not the best way to proceed for safety’s sake, and it’s certainly not the most efficient way to engage and grow an industry,” he said. “FAA needs to update its exemption process. The current process is simply unacceptable and leaves too many small businesses out to dry.”

The witnesses at the hearing said that even once an exemption is secured, operators might find it difficult to use their drones for some commercial applications, like precision agriculture for instance. Currently, drones can only be flown within the operator’s visual line-of-sight and no higher than 200 feet (any higher requires another certificate of authorization).

FAA put out a proposed rule for the commercial operation of small drones last year, which would require drones weighing 55 pounds or less be operated at a top airspeed of 100 mph and at a maximum altitude of 500 feet. Operators would also be required to pass an initial and recurrent (every two years) aeronautical knowledge test, be vetted by the Transportation Security Administration and obtain an unmanned aircraft operator certificate with a small UAS rating. FAA says the regulations should be finalized within months.

Some of the witnesses said the rule couldn’t be finalized fast enough, noting that the U.S. is already behind Canada, Japan and Australia in drone use.

Brian Wynne, president and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, testified that over 100,000 U.S. jobs and $82 billion in economic impact hinges on the FAA finalizing its drone regulations.

“A consistent, federal regulatory framework will bring clarity to the regulations governing commercial UAS operations and obviate the need for states and municipalities to enact their own laws, which have the potential to create confusion and compliance burdens for small businesses,” Wynne told the panel.

Tim Canoll, president of the Air Line Pilots Association, however, cautioned against moving too quickly. He told the lawmakers more time is needed to develop a rule that “safely, deliberately and thoughtfully” integrates UAS into the nation’s air space.

Canoll gave several examples of commercial or recreational drones being flown too high, or too close to airport runways, endangering commercial aircraft and violating the FAA’s current ban on drones within five miles of airports. And he pointed out even a small drone could take down a large passenger jet, resulting in loss of life and billions in damages.

In addition to safety concerns, several legislators wanted to know how FAA’s drone policies would affect rural and agricultural users.

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., said she was concerned government agencies such as USDA might use the technology to monitor agricultural production, creating a “problem for a lot of ranchers and farmers.”

“We need to broaden the dialog here beyond safety and talk about how we manage this technology in that privacy space,” Heitkamp said. “That’s something that we haven’t done all that well” to date.

Republican Sen. Joni Ernst said farmers in her state of Iowa are using drones for precision ag applications on remote farms – far from population centers or airports where more pressing safety concerns would come into play.

“What do we do to ensure that we’re not overburdening some of the folks that are utilizing this technology?” she asked the witnesses.

Canoll suggested instead of more prescriptive, blanket rules, FAA could use “geo-fencing” – a virtual barrier – to keep drones from flying where they shouldn’t. Other witnesses suggested installing a passcode on drones that can only be used by the licensed owner, ensuring that operators of commercial drones are at a minimum trained on how to use the aircraft legally.

Congressional authorization for the FAA is scheduled to lapse March 31. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., introduced a reauthorization bill last week that would allow exemptions for the visual line of sight rule, a provision applauded by the Small UAV Coalition.