The Obama administration on Sunday released a long-awaited set of guidelines to govern drones in American skies, setting the stage for widespread use of unmanned aircraft in a variety of industries.
The Federal Aviation Administration proposal, which is in draft form and will be open to public comment for the next 60 days, applies to drones weighing less than 55 pounds and being used for non-recreational purposes, such as commercial use by private companies.
Under the proposed rules, drone operators must be at least 17 years old, must pass an aeronautical knowledge test and get an operator certificate from the FAA.
Operators also will be required to maintain visual line of sight of their craft at all times. As is the case with recreational craft such as model airplanes, drones also must not fly over populated areas, cannot exceed an altitude of 500 feet or a speed of 100 mph, and must stay out of restricted airspace such as airports, the agency said.
“We have tried to be flexible in writing these rules,” FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said in a statement. “We want to maintain today’s outstanding level of aviation safety without placing an undue regulatory burden on an emerging industry.”
In 2012, Congress directed the FAA to integrate drones — also known as unmanned aerial systems (UAS) — into the national airspace by September. Even with Sunday’s proposal, the agency remains behind schedule.
Still, the proposed rules begin to offer a degree of clarity that had been missing.
Current law prohibits using drones for commercial purposes, limiting use of the unmanned craft to government operations and for research purposes. But the FAA also has begun to issue waivers for commercial drone use, allowing a select number of filmmakers, news organizations, oil-and-gas companies and others to use the craft.
The FAA’s method of picking and choosing who gets to use drones had come under fire from industry leaders who urged the agency to release broader rules as soon as possible.
Those industry leaders say Sunday’s move in a key step in the right direction.
““This proposed rule is a critical milestone in the UAS integration process, and one that is long overdue. UAS technology has largely remained grounded while many prospective users wait for the regulatory framework to catch up,” said Brian Wynne, president and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, the drone industry’s largest trade group.
“This is a good first step in an evolutionary process that brings us closer to realizing the many societal and economic benefits of UAS technology,” he added.
The full proposal is available here.