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US Unveils Proposed Guidelines for Commercial Use of Drone Aircraft

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Sunday released proposed rules to deal with the rising demand for the use of unmanned commercial drones in the United States. At the same time, the White House issued a presidential memo requiring federal agencies using drones to be transparent and protect civil liberties.

Although the new regulations are still months or years away, the long-anticipated rules would open a new era in which small, commercial drones less than 25-kilograms can perform tasks like crop monitoring and bridge and electrical tower inspections.

Operators of the drones, known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), would have to pass a written proficiency test to obtain a special pilot certificate, fly only during daylight hours, at speeds of 160 kilometers per hour or less, in airspace under 152 meters and remain in line-of-sight of the aircraft.

Users would have to be 17 years of age or older, their vehicles banned from flying over people and kept from the area around airports. News organizations would still be barred from taking pictures from UAVs.

The latest version also does not allow companies, like Amazon, to deliver packages using drones. However, with advances in technology, those rules could be modified.

Demand for drones is rising worldwide and the commercial applications are enormous. Unmanned aerial vehicles can streamline costs, eliminate risky jobs and foster innovation.

Todd Curtis, founder of the Seattle-based, said the proposed rules are a sensible first step.

"The technology of drones is advancing at such a rapid rate that, even if the FAA tried to the best of its ability put out regulations very quickly, they’d probably be superseded by the technology. So, having some guidance now, even though it’s not official, will bring some kind of sensibility and some kind of limitations to what commercial people plan to do with drones," said Curtis.

Curtis thinks the use of drones for certain tasks will replace pilots using manned aircraft for the same jobs.

"There are the obvious potential economic and non-economic benefits of having a system where you can have flights conducted in ways that don’t put at risk any flight crew members. Now, certainly, if we stick to just the commercial use of aircraft, there are a lot of commercial uses that are happening right now from agricultural crop dusting to doing aerial surveys of forests and such, aerial surveys of pipelines and high power lines where you have piloted aircraft and pilots at risk. You can have a drone that’s as capable, or perhaps even more capable, than one that has a person in it that’s going to be much smaller and potentially flying in ways that are much less dangerous," said Curtis.

FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said the federal agency will use public education campaigns and fines to enforce its new rules once adopted. The FAA is still drafting rules for larger drones, and that process could take years.

The use of so-called “micro-drones” by hobbyists has also become popular in the United States. Vehicles of less than two-kilograms (1.9958 kg) have few restrictions. They must fly under 122 meters, remain in line-of-sight and stay eight kilometers from airports.

As in so much of the aerospace industry, the world has followed the lead of the U.S. and Europe. But, Curtis believes that when it comes to drones, the situation will be different.

"It’s a technology that is dispersed around the world. It’s a capability that an individual could take up and use and learn it in short order. There is no need for a large government or large corporate infrastructure to have one or several drones flying in a short period of time. So, anything that’s done in one country is likely to have very little effect in other countries because the drones are made in many places, they’re used by many organizations and many individuals. Most of them have no direct connection with their national government with respect to getting permission to fly or do whatever they wish. So, certainly, the U.S. can lead when it comes to drone regulations and drone management, but their ability to affect other countries is somewhat limited," said Curtis.

While FAA rules are designed to balance the economic potential of drones with aviation safety, President Obama’s Sunday memorandum is aimed at safeguarding personal privacy.

It requires federal agencies to guard against the abuse of data collected from their own drone flights, periodic review of agency policies and transparency in making those policies public. It also directs a public/private sector partnership in creating a code of conduct in the commercial use of drones.