The Federal Aviation Administration is moving to allow commercial drones that weigh less than 55 pounds to be flown in the U.S. under new regulations that were released on Sunday morning.
The proposal, which has been highly anticipated, would greatly increase the domestic use of drones in a long-sought victory for advocates of the technology.
Transportation Secretary Anthony FoxxAnthony Renard FoxxBusiness, labor groups teaming in high-speed rail push Hillicon Valley: Uber, Lyft agree to take California labor win nationwide | Zoom to implement new security program along with FTC | Virgin Hyperloop completes first test ride with passengers Uber, Lyft eager to take California labor win nationwide MORE said the FAA’s rules will strike a balance the desire for increased drone use and concerns that have arisen about potential privacy violations from the unmanned flights.
“Technology is advancing at an unprecedented pace and this milestone allows federal regulations and the use of our national airspace to evolve to safely accommodate innovation,” Foxx said in a statement.
The FAA’s rules define small drones as devices that weigh less than 55 pounds and require them to be operated at heights that are less than 500 feet and speeds that are less than 100 miles per hour.
The regulations also call for drone flights to be limited to daytime hours and conducted only by U.S. residents who are older than 17. Drone operators are also prohibited under the FAA proposal from conducting flights that take the devices out of their line of vision, which is a big blow to companies, like Amazon, that have touted the possibility of using the technology to conduct deliveries.
The rules make drone operators responsible for avoiding collisions with manned aircraft that are in the same airspace as the devices, and the prohibit drone flights that “fly over people, except those directly involved with the flight.”
FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said the rules are an attempt to regulate the use of non-military drones without stifling the expansion of the new technology.
“We have tried to be flexible in writing these rules,” Huerta said. “We want to maintain today’s outstanding level of aviation safety without placing an undue regulatory burden on an emerging industry.”
Lawmakers who support the increased use of drones in the U.S. cheered the FAA’s announcement on Sunday.
“This technology holds tremendous promise for many commercial applications in the areas of science, safety, and security, including everything from aerial surveying to precision agriculture," Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), who is the top ranking Democrat on the Senate Subcommittee on Aviation Operations, Safety and Security, said in a statement.
"I look forward to working with the FAA and my colleagues to develop a framework that balances economic potential with protecting privacy and the safety our national airspace system,” Cantwell continued.
Aviation industry groups also applauded the FAA’s announcement.
“By issuing draft regulations for the use of small unmanned aircraft systems, FAA has taken an important step towards the integration of UAS into civil airspace,” Aerospace Industries Association President CEO Marion Blakey, who is a former FAA chief, said.
“The issuance of these proposed regulations is a key element of government and industry efforts to foster safe operations in both civil and military applications of remotely piloted aircraft while further encouraging research and development of UAS technologies,” Blakey continued. “We believe this step will pave the way for additional service organizations and industries to explore expanded operations and use of UAS technologies.”
The FAA had been facing tremendous pressure to approve a rapid expansion of nonmilitary drone use. Congress had given agency until September, 2015 to finalize new the rules for the unmanned aircraft that were proposed on Sunday.
The FAA has been testing the interaction between drones and other types of commercial and private airplanes at multiple sites across the country.
The pressure on the FAA to quickly approve drones was being ramped up in part because online companies have said they could be used to speed up delivery times.
Police and other law enforcement groups were also seeking approval to use the technology, and the FAA has also investigated several drone incidents that occurred in conjunction with college and professional sporting events.
The potential for increased use of drones has drawn criticism from privacy advocates, who have raised concerns about surveillance.
The American Civil Liberties Union said it still has concerns with the expanded use of drones in the U.S., despite the FAA's efforts to address privacy issues.
“This proposal is an important step in restricting how the government uses this powerful surveillance technology, but falls short of fully protecting the privacy of Americans,” ACLU Legislative Counsel Neema Singh Guliani said in a statement.
“For example, the proposal allows the use of data gathered by domestic drones for any ‘authorized purpose,’ which is not defined, leaving the door open to inappropriate drone use by federal agencies,” Guliani continued. “At a minimum, the administration should require that law enforcement first obtain a judge’s approval before being allowed to use this invasive technology and limit drone use to specific purposes.”
--This report was updated at 2:26 p.m.