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FAA drone rules: Does proposal strike right balance on safety, innovation?

The FAA has released an outline of proposed new rules for drones, opening the door to their widening use but putting some sharp limits on how far and how high they can legally fly. Here are some specifics.

Gregory Bull/AP/File
Former Navy helicopter pilot and San Diego Gas & Electric unmanned aircraft operator Teena Deering holds a drone as it is prepared for takeoff near Boulevard, Calif., Oct. 16, 2014.

Drone aircraft clearly have valuable uses in fields as different as engineering and law enforcement, farming and filmmaking. The question is: How do regulators strike the right balance between enabling the technology and reining in potential risks to safety and privacy?

That’s the thicket into which the Federal Aviation Administration has finally stepped with an outline of proposed new rules.

The FAA chooses a middle-of-the-road path, opening the door to widening use of unmanned aerial vehicles but putting some sharp limits on how far and how high they can legally fly.

FAA rules can’t be implemented before a period for public comment and then final rulemaking. But in making its proposals public, the FAA has taken a stand against any huge welcome mat for companies like Amazon to start delivering packages or pizza by drone to suburban front lawns.

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

Early reaction to the announcement, though, reveals the challenges ahead for regulators. Even as would-be drone operators push for new permissions, advocates for safety and privacy raise concerns about the risks of too few restraints.

Whatever the rules are, enforcement appears sure to be a challenge – a fact highlighted by incidents such as the recent landing of a drone outside one of the most security-conscious homes in the world: the White House. The operator had lost control of the craft, which crashed on the lawn before Secret Service agents could block it, the Associated Press reported.

The FAA says its proposals are “designed to minimize risks to other aircraft and people and property on the ground.” The rules, for unmanned aircraft in non-recreational uses, would include:

  • Drone flights would be limited to an altitude of 500 feet or lower and to speeds no faster than 100 miles per hour.
  • Operators would have to maintain “visual line of sight” with the aircraft. No night flying or long-distance remote control.
  • Operators “must stay out of airport flight paths and restricted airspace areas.”
  • Operators have a responsibility to avoid manned aircraft and to be first to maneuver away from any risk of collision. Operators must discontinue a flight if continuing would pose a hazard to people or property.
  • Drones “may not fly over people, except those directly involved with the flight.”
  • Operators would have to be at least 17 years old and pass FAA aeronautical knowledge tests every 24 months, but would not need further private pilot certifications.
  • Operators would have to make a preflight inspection of the craft and its controls, but the equipment would not require the kind of certification of airworthiness needed for manned aircraft.

Until the new rules are finalized, the FAA says, current rules for unmanned aircraft will remain in place, which allow hobbyists to fly drones recreationally – with safety guidelines.

Still, pilots of commercial and private aircraft have reported close-call incidents with drones in their airspace. Last June, for instance, a United Airlines pilot reported a near miss in which a drone was about 100 below and 100 feet to the right of the plane.

At the same time, some business technology experts call the FAA proposal a case of doing too little, too late.

In a Washington Post opinion column, Larry Downes of Georgetown University warns that the big potential of the drone revolution is being held back by an inflexible US regulatory system, giving other nations “a leg up in what is already a global race to develop and apply the technology to create new applications.”

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