Gov’t proposes rules for routine commercial use of drones

FILE - In this Jan. 20, 2015 file photo, the Aerialtronics Altura Zenith drone is seen at an event at the National Press Club in Washington. An economic analysis by the Federal Aviation Administration indicates the agency, citing economic and safety benefits, is seeking regulations largely favorable to companies that want to use small drones. The analysis, which was posted online, describes draft rules that would clear the way for widespread use of small drones for all manner of chores, including aerial photography, crop monitoring, and inspections of cellular towers, bridges and other tall structures. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The government proposed long-awaited rules Sunday to usher in an era of commercial drones zipping through U.S. skies, but packages from these unmanned aircraft won’t be landing on your doorstep any time soon.

The Federal Aviation Administration proposed requirements that commercial operators must meet, such as passing a knowledge test administered by the agency as well as a federal security check, in order to fly small drones, defined as weighing less than 55 pounds. It is likely to be two or three years before the rules are made final, but federal officials said that once they are in place the economic and safety benefits of unmanned aircraft are expected to be enormous.

Among the chores that officials envision drones performing: Aerial photography and mapping, crop monitoring, and inspections of cell towers, bridges and other tall structures. But the proposal includes safety restrictions such as keeping drones within sight of operators at all times and no nighttime flights. That could mean no package or pizza deliveries by drone. Drones would also have to stay at least 5 miles away from an airport.

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

The agency is working with industry on technology that will eventually enable small drones to fly safely beyond the sight of operators, Huerta said.

Even with the restrictions, drones are expected to play a “transformative role in fields as diverse as urban infrastructure management, farming, public safety, coastal security, military training, search and rescue, and disaster response,” the White House said in a presidential memorandum on privacy released in conjunction with the rules.

The memorandum lays out measures federal agencies must follow to guard against abuse of data collected in their drone flights. Among other steps, the order requires agencies to review privacy and civil rights protections before deploying drone technology and to adhere to a range of controls. Personally identifiable information collected in drone flights is to be kept no longer than 180 days, although there are exceptions.

It’s questionable whether such steps will satisfy civil liberties advocates, who’ve objected strongly to the government’s vigorous use of digital surveillance in the name of national security.

The proposal also raises the possibility that final rules may have a separate category for very small drones — those weighing 4.4 pounds or less — with fewer restrictions.

“I am very pleased to see a much more reasonable approach to future regulation than many feared,” said Brendan Schulman, a New York attorney who unsuccessfully challenged FAA’s restrictions on drone flights.

The agency currently bans commercial drone flights except for a few dozen companies that have been granted waivers. That ban will stay in place until the proposed regulations become final, but FAA officials plan to continue granting waivers on a case-by-case basis.

The proposed rules are “a good first step” bringing the U.S. closer to realizing the benefits of drone technology, said Brian Wynne, president and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, a trade group.

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