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Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Proposed FAA Rules Would Limit Commercial Drone Use

As reported by the New York Times:In an attempt to bring order to increasingly chaotic skies, the Federal Aviation Administration on Sunday proposed long-awaited rules on the commercial use of small drones, requiring operators to be certified, fly only during daylight and keep their aircraft in sight.

The rules, though less restrictive than the current ones, appear to prohibit for now the kind of drone delivery services being explored by Amazon, Google and other companies, since the operator or assigned observers must be able to see the drone at all times without binoculars. But company officials believe the line-of-sight requirement could be relaxed in the future to accommodate delivery services.

The proposed regulations would cover only nonrecreational unmanned aircraft weighing up to 55 pounds, and would not apply to the recreational use of drones, which have become hugely popular with hobbyists and are covered by other rules. However, the F.A.A. said it was considering additional rules to cover some uses of the smallest drones, so-called microdrones, weighing less than 4.4 pounds.

Some drone evangelists believe that in the next few decades, robotic aircraft will prove as useful and transformative to government, commerce and home life as the personal computer. But the exploding number of domestic drones has been accompanied by increasing safety problems, including reports of near misses involving passenger airliners and the crash of a small drone on the White House grounds last month.

The F.A.A. has worked on the rules for several years, and their release only begins a period of public comment and possible revision that could take as long as two years before they take effect.

“We have tried to be flexible in writing these rules,” Michael P. Huerta, the F.A.A. administrator, said in a statement. “We want to maintain today’s outstanding level of aviation safety without placing an undue regulatory burden on an emerging industry.”

Also on Sunday, President Obama signed a memorandum requiring government agencies to report publicly each year a “general summary” on their drone use, though the order includes a loophole allowing secrecy for operations involving national security or law enforcement.

The memorandum addresses worries that drone surveillance could invade privacy. It requires agencies to adopt rules governing “the collection, use, retention, and dissemination of information obtained by UAS,” or unmanned aerial systems, and making sure their drone use complies with the law and the Constitution.

The draft rules and the presidential order reflect growing official concern about the dangers posed by the unregulated proliferation of drones in many industries. After a decade in which unmanned aircraft were mainly associated with spying and killing terrorists, small drones in the last few years have been adopted by real estate agents to photograph properties, farmers to survey crops and electric utilities to inspect power lines. Hobbyists, who can buy a microdrone for less than $1,000, now use them to film everything from fireworks displays to football games.
Amazon, the Seattle-based online retailer, complained that the proposed rules might slow the development of its proposed delivery service, Prime Air.

Paul Misener, Amazon’s vice president for global public policy, said the proposed rules could take one or two years for final adoption and would not permit Prime Air to operate in the United States. “The F.A.A. needs to begin and expeditiously complete the formal process to address the needs of our business, and ultimately our customers,” he said.