WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama’s administration took the first step to opening the skies above the U.S. to widespread civilian drone flights while proposing strict limits on commercial operations and privacy rules for those flown by government agencies.
The Federal Aviation Administration on Sunday unveiled a proposal to permit businesses to use small unmanned aircraft, so long as they are flown at low altitudes by a person who is at least 17 years old, passes a knowledge test and gets an FAA certificate. Flights wouldn’t be allowed out of sight of the operator or over crowds, and couldn’t exceed 100 mph (161 kph), according to a fact sheet issued by the agency.
“Technology is advancing at an unprecedented pace and this milestone allows federal regulations and the use of our national airspace to evolve to safely accommodate innovation,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a statement.
Pizza deliveries or flights to bring goods to people’s homes, like those envisioned by Amazon Inc. Chief Executive Officer Jeff Bezos, won’t be permitted. Google Inc. and Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. have also experimented with such technology.
Operators must stay out of airport flight paths and couldn’t drop objects from a drone.
Even with those limits, the twin announcements by the Transportation Department’s FAA and the White House were the most significant attempt so far to set a framework for controlling a new technology that has at times evolved faster than the government was able to react.
Allowing drones to be flown for business purposes in the U.S. may produce $100 million or more in economic benefits, according to the FAA.
Obama, in a separate policy directive also released Sunday, made his first attempt to address the concerns that privacy advocates have raised about the increasing use of drones by government agencies.
The directive orders agencies to limit the collection and retention of data gathered by unmanned aircraft. Local and state agencies receiving federal grants must also create drone privacy policies, according to the memorandum.
While praising the effort as helpful, the American Civil Liberties Union said the directive fell short of the organization’s goal.
The advocacy group for civil-liberties protections had called for a requirement for a warrant from a judge before drones could be used to monitor people. That isn’t contained in the policy. The group also said the White House should tighten limits on drone uses.
The standard leaves “the door open to inappropriate drone use by federal agencies,” Neema Singh Guliani, legislative counsel at the group’s Washington office, said in an email.
On the FAA’s proposal, the Aerospace Industries Association, an Arlington, Virginia-based trade group, said the draft regulations were a good first step to promote drones, also known as unmanned aircraft systems, or UAS.
“We believe this step will pave the way for additional service organizations and industries to explore expanded operations and use of UAS technologies,” it said in a statement.
The FAA said the potential for drones to save lives justifies their use on an economic basis.
For example, using drones to inspect radio and telecommunications towers would eliminate the need for workers to climb the structures. Ninety-five workers died climbing those towers from 2004 through 2012, the FAA said.
Similarly, 17 manned aircraft performing aerial photography crashed from 2005 through 2009, killing 19 people, according to the FAA. Drones could take over some of that work.
The proposed rule also said the FAA is considering creating more flexible rules for “micro” drones lighter than 4.4 pounds (2 kg), which pose lower risks. The agency is asking for the public’s reaction to the idea.
There will be a 60-day public comment period on the regulations.
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