- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 15, 2015

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 the craft across a variety of industries.

President Obama also issued a separate directive creating the first set of concrete rules for the federal government’s own use of drones — also known as unmanned aerial systems or UAS — designed to ensure the craft don’t violate Americans’ privacy.

Taken together, the two steps mark a major step forward in the White House’s effort to regulate the rapidly expanding drone industry.

“The federal government will take steps to ensure that the integration [of drones] takes into account not only our economic competitiveness and public safety, but also the privacy, civil rights and civil liberties concerns these systems may raise,” Mr. Obama said in a memorandum to federal agencies.

The Federal Aviation Administration’s drone proposal, which is in draft form and will be open to public comment for the next 60 days, applies to UAS 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 need an operator certificate from the FAA.

Operators also will be required to maintain visual line of sight on 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.”

The president’s order on privacy acknowledges that the federal government currently operates drones in the U.S. for several purposes, “including to manage federal lands, monitor wildfires, conduct scientific research, monitor our borders, support law enforcement, and effectively train our military.”

He said information gathered by government-operated drones “must be collected, used, retained, and disseminated consistent with the Constitution.”

The president’s order is aimed at promoting “better accountability and transparent use of this technology,” the White House said.

Despite Sunday’s progress, industry leaders say the administration still has a long way to go.

Until the FAA proposal is finalized, the use of drones for commercial purposes technically is prohibited and the craft are limited to government operations and academic research. 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 has come under fire from industry leaders who urged the agency to release broader rules as soon as possible.

Sunday’s move is a key step toward those broader rules.

“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 increasing private and commercial use of remote-controlled drones, some as light as two pounds, has caused safety concerns for civil aviation due to several close calls in the past year near major airports.

In addition, a drone operated by an off-duty government employee crashed onto the White House grounds last month.

After that incident, the president said he wanted to develop guidelines for drones to ensure “that we get the good and minimize the bad.”

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