Unmanned aircraft, once reserved for clandestine military operations, are now everywhere. These drones, fixed with high-definition cameras, are used to record video, survey crops and wind farms, herd livestock and conduct search-and-rescue operations. Some day, drones could be used to deliver goods, everything from pizza and beer to socks and shoes.

But while the technology steadily improves, and falls in price, regulation in the United States lags behind. The Federal Aviation Administration has missed several deadlines for proposing new rules on drones, and now those rules are not likely to be finalized until “2017 or later,” according to the Government Accountability Office.

That is much too long a delay for devices that are fast becoming common despite the restrictions now in place, and for which a huge international market exists that is quickly leaving U.S. companies behind.

For now, the commercial use of drones is prohibited by FAA policy, except in the extremely rare cases the FAA has allowed them to be used in filmmaking. Hobbyists who use drones for their own enjoyment are governed by the same regulations that cover model airplanes, which must be kept under 400 feet in altitude, away from aircraft and airports, and within sight of the user.

That hasn’t stopped the use of drones, however; it’s just pushed it under the radar, so to speak.

The FAA, which is busy regulating manned aircraft, has little time and few resources for tracking commercial use of drones. In fact, in the 13 months preceding July 2013, the FAA conducted just 17 enforcement actions on drone operators and issued just one fine. The operators, even those working unlicensed on large Hollywood productions, have little worry of getting caught.

Hobbyists have even less oversight, despite a few high-profile incidents in which aircraft have been buzzed and people hurt by wayward drones.

What the FAA’s commercial ban has done is limit the participation by U.S. companies in what is sure to be a multibillion-dollar industry.

The applications for unmanned aircraft are nearly endless. Amazon and Google want to use drones to deliver consumer goods. Domino’s wants to use them to deliver pizza. One German company uses drones to produce 3D models of roads and buildings for engineering purposes, doing in three 10-minute flights what once took two days to make an inferior model.

According to reports, U.S.-based companies, hindered by the regulations that restrict test flights and exporting, are moving operations abroad. The ones staying here are facing funding issues and losing ground quickly to competitors in Europe and China.

U.S. companies will continue to lose ground, and the illicit use of drones will continue to rise, until the FAA sets rules that make sense.

There is, for instance, no reason that commercial users should be limited so much more than hobbyists. The issue is safety, not use, and drone weight limits, strict no-fly areas and hefty fines should keep fliers in line.

Also, surveillance laws already in place may already cover privacy concerns, and if they don’t, lawmakers should address the laws’ shortcomings.

These rules should be put in place soon, not two years from now. Drones, once prohibitively expensive, are now available for less than a wide-screen TV, and their use will only grow. The FAA — and if not, Congress — needs to get ahead of that growth, and let U.S. companies play a more active role in it.

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