Long-awaited federal rules proposed for commercial drones should pave the way for thousands of U.S. businesses to fly the devices in industries like filmmaking, farming and construction, but drone proponents worried that limits in the regulations would stifle other possible uses like package delivery.
Drone makers and users generally cheered the rules proposed by the Obama administration on Sunday, which would replace the Federal Aviation Administration’s current near-ban on commercial use of the devices. The industry had worried federal regulators would treat drones like manned aircraft, mandating expensive and time-consuming airframe certifications and full pilots licenses for drone operators.
Instead, the FAA set simple criteria for certifying operators and said they could maintain safety of the devices themselves.
But the proposed rules—which will undergo 60 days of public comment before the FAA finalizes them, likely late next year—also contain limits on drone operations. Those include bans on flights over people or beyond the sight of operators, and a requirement for prior approval from air-traffic control for flying in many urban areas. Proponents said such restrictions would preclude many commercial uses for the devices and set U.S. drone users behind their peers abroad.
The proposed rules “are more progressive than we expected,” said Michael Drobac, executive director of the Small UAV Coalition, a trade group that represents drone makers, including Amazon.com Inc. and Google Inc. “But once you spend some time looking at them, some of the things proposed would be devastating to the future of the industry.”
FAA officials said they sought to balance the need for flexibility for the emerging drone industry with the agency’s top priority, public safety. The rules would “provide probably the most flexible regime for unmanned aircraft 55 pounds or less that exists anywhere in the world,” FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said.
The rules would require operators to obtain an FAA certificate by passing a written exam in person every two years. The standards would limit flights to daytime, below 500 feet, less than 100 miles an hour, and within sight of the operator. The rules don’t affect recreational use of drones, which is already permitted as long as users obey safe-operating requirements.
The FAA requested comment on specific areas throughout its 195-page proposal, which was nearly four years behind schedule. Final regulations often differ from proposals. The FAA also said it was still mulling separate, less-demanding rules for unmanned aircraft weighing less than five pounds.
Until the rules are final, the FAA’s effective ban on commercial drones will remain in place. The FAA has approved just 26 companies to use drones under strict rules.
Separately on Sunday, the Obama administration set rules on how federal agencies can use drones in the U.S. The administration said the rules are designed to protect citizens’ privacy and civil liberties, including a mandate for federal agencies to release annual summaries of their drone operations.
For private and commercial drones, the White House ordered the Department of Commerce to convene a stakeholder group within 90 days to develop guidelines for “privacy, accountability and transparency issues” for such devices.
The FAA said it proposes banning flights over people and beyond eyeshot because of risks unique to unmanned aircraft: operators can suddenly lose control of the devices and no pilot is on board to see and avoid obstacles. Drone makers are working on technology to improve the wireless link between drones and operators and to enable the devices to sense and avoid obstacles automatically.
The proposed restrictions could limit many commercial drone applications, including filmmaking, delivering packages, news reporting, monitoring crops at large farms, and inspecting power lines and pipelines.
Amazon.com Inc. said the proposed rules wouldn’t allow Prime Air, its planned delivery-by-drone program, to operate in the U.S. “The FAA needs to begin and expeditiously complete the formal process to address the needs of our business, and ultimately our customers,” the company said.
The FAA said its proposed rules don’t cover delivery drones, and that any unmanned aircraft carrying an “external load” might require FAA certification. Companies would be allowed to test a drone carrying a package under the proposed rules, “but they could not carry it for payment; they could not carry it for someone else,” said Mark Bury, the FAA’s assistant chief counsel.
Limitations on the battery life of drones and their ability to carry payloads far distances mean systematic drone deliveries aren’t possible today, but companies are running delivery trials and say the technology will be ready in the next several years.
Ted Ellett, a former FAA chief counsel who represents companies that want to use drones, said the proposal “seems to be close to a home run” for many of his clients and their peers.
Drones for farming would likely thrive under the proposal, he said, but the FAA’s proposed limits still would allow the agency to block drone flights if they pass “over a single farmer on his tractor in the middle of a 100-acre field in Iowa.”
Mr. Ellett and other industry officials also worry that requiring operators to get approval from air-traffic control to fly drones near airports—and thus in many urban and suburban areas—would pose a big hurdle to certain operations.
Private manned aircraft frequently operate without flight plans around such areas, and they don’t need approval prior to takeoff.
The FAA said it aims to separate drone traffic from manned aircraft. The agency says it has received dozens of reports of drones flying too close to manned aircraft and airports in recent years.
Sen. Charles Schumer (D., N.Y.) said in an interview that the proposed rules are a positive step, but that limits on flights over people or beyond the view of the operator would stifle the industry.
The FAA “started out on the strict side, but they’ll have to loosen up,” he said. “Legislation is a possibility, but let’s see how the regulations evolve.”
Chris Anderson, chief executive of U.S. drone maker 3D Robotics Inc., played down the impact of the proposed limits that his peers criticized, saying that the rules would enable the vast majority of commercial drone flights that are technically possible today.
Not requiring full pilots licenses, aircraft certifications “and other things that would have been barriers to innovation is what encourages me the most,” he said. “The little, tiny things like no nighttime flying and not flying over people all strike me as things that can be discussed.”
He added that regulations would finally lend legitimacy to the drone industry and lead to rapid expansion. “All I wanted was a sandbox where we could innovate,” he said. “Now we’ve got that sandbox and I think you’ll see an explosion of creativity and energy and investment in this space going forward.”
Source: Wall Street Journal