WASHINGTON — The federal government Tuesday made it much easier for companies to use drones for a variety of tasks, including aerial photography and emergency response.
The Federal Aviation Administration’s new commercial drone rules allow a broad range of businesses to use drones under 55 pounds, but with several restrictions: The drones must be operated by a pilot who has passed a written test and is at least 16 years old. And drones can only be flown below 400 feet, during the day, and at least 5 miles away from airports.
The new FAA rules do not necessarily preclude a hodgepodge of state and local drone regulations that have popped up in recent years. The administration sent a letter to states and cities saying they recommend everyone follow their lead. But it is only a recommendation.
The FAA stopped short of giving a green light to package delivery, a goal of Amazon and Google, which have pushed regulators to create rules that would allow them to transfer part of their ground-based delivery systems to the sky. The new guidelines mandate that a commercial drone operator must always have the machine within line of sight — a rule that, for now, makes delivering packages unfeasible.
Still, the action brings the drone delivery vision one step closer to reality. And experts predict that in time federal regulators will get comfortable with the notion.
“Within months you will see the incredible impact of these rules with commercial drones becoming commonplace in a variety of uses,” said Michael Drobac, a lawyer at Akin Gump who represents drone efforts at companies like Amazon and Google. “This will show the technology is reliable, and then it becomes harder to argue against broader uses — like for delivery.”
Drone makers and tech companies have been lobbying for the rules for five years. But the Obama administration, while trying to accommodate the potential economic benefits of the technology, has struggled to safely integrate the popular, remote-controlled flying vehicles into airspace.
Pilots and privacy groups that pushed hard for greater safety provisions and strong surveillance rules expressed fear that clearing the way for more of the flying machines posed new dangers and few protections from spying. The FAA rules prohibit drones from flying above people and faster than 100 mph.
“The FAA continues to ignore the top concern of Americans about the deployment of commercial drones in the United States — the need for strong privacy safeguards,” said Marc Rotenberg, president of Electronic Privacy Information Center.
In February 2015, the FAA created its first rules for recreational drone users and more than 450,000 hobbyists registered last winter in the government’s user database.
Previously, companies had to apply for special permission from the FAA to operate drones. The government has issued more than 6,000 approvals and about 7,000 companies are on a waiting list for approval. When the new rules go into effect in 60 days, companies will no longer have to gain that special exemption.
“With this new rule, we are taking a careful and deliberate approach that balances the need to deploy this new technology with the FAA’s mission to protect public safety,” said Michael Huerta, the FAA administrator. “But this is just our first step. We’re already working on additional rules that will expand the range of operations.”
The demand by companies has been broad. Real estate brokers want to use drones to take aerial estate photos, news organizations believe the machines would be useful for news gathering, farmers want to use them to survey fields, and emergency responders believe the devices would be useful for rescue operations.
In a fact sheet released by the White House, the government cited economic estimates that commercial drones could generate more than $82 billion in the next decade.
Drones “represent a potentially powerful innovation that could have a positive impact on our economy,” said Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary.