The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the White House proposed guidelines last week on unmanned aircrafts, finally responding to industry pressure to ease restrictions on remotely piloted aircraft.
The FAA’s proposal allows private use of drones weighing 55 pounds or less, flying at altitudes up to 500 feet and speeds less than 100 miles per hour. For the sake of comparison, the Washington Monument is about 550 feet tall, and a Cessna private propeller plane cruises at about 120 mph. The FAA’s rules would bar drones from flying near airports or at night.
Those new rules affect a host of industries and, potentially, government agencies. Here are six things to know about the proposal:
1. Hold that delivery.
The FAA effectively grounded plans for companies such as Amazon by requiring that pilots be certified and that they operate their drones within their own field of vision. Amazon’s plans for drone-home delivery won’t fly if that rule survives the review process.
Department of Transportation Chief Anthony Foxx said at Washington, D.C.’s Union Station that the government is not closing the doors on delivery, just trying to ensure safety. “I actually would be happy to have our team engage with not only Amazon, but other users who may feel like there’s more that should be done and in fact our rule making process allows for public comment.”
2. Limitless possibilities.
The White House drone memorandum sees potential uses for unmanned aircraft in agriculture, law enforcement, coastal security, military training, search and rescue, first responder medical support, and more. Civilian uses, including recreation, movie making, real estate sales and development, and news coverage, are just a few other areas where unmanned aircraft could prove useful.
The memo notes concerns about drone use and protecting civil liberties, but privacy advocates howled over vague verbiage such as requiring that gathering information with drones can only be done for an “authorized purpose.”
3. Public notice required.
Government agencies employing drones will have to provide a “notice to the public” where drones operate and release an annual summary of the types of missions they’re conducting.
Within those guidelines, individual agencies will have authority to implement rules for their own use.
The directive requires Feds to disclose when and where they fly. Taxpayer-funded drones will have to reveal what they do with any data collected during aerial surveillance and the FAA retains the right to inspect a drone or revoke an operator’s certification at any time.
“We want to capture the potential of unmanned aircraft and we have been working to develop the framework for the safe integration of this technology into our airspace,” Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx told NPR.
4. Warm Reception – So Far
Brian Wynne, president of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), called the FAA’s proposal a “good first step in an evolutionary process.”
“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.”
But Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY), called for more business-friendly regulations. “These FAA rules are a solid first step but need a lot more refining. The inclusion of the rule that drones must be flown within the operator’s line of sight appears to be a concerning limitation on commercial usage; I urge the FAA to modify that as these rules are finalized,” Schumer said, according to USA Today.
5. Privacy Concerns
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) expressed concern over the expanded use of drones domestically, despite the FAA’s efforts to address privacy issues.
“This proposal…falls short of fully protecting the privacy of Americans,” ACLU Legislative Counsel Neema Singh Guliani said in a statement.
6. Thousands of Users
Soon, you can expect to see drones flying over construction sites, inspecting cell towers, and checking for forest fires, Ben Popper writes at The Verge. The FAA estimates that with these new rules in place, more than 7,000 companies will be able to fly drones in the first three years.
Agencies will need time to understand and explore all the ways drones might be used and what the implications could be on the public, both in terms of safety and privacy.
Congress and the public will also have a say, and it could take years before the policies are in place and enforced. American citizens should reap the most benefits as they enjoy better technology to improve our country’s infrastructure – but will new regulations quell fears of Orwellian surveillance in the sky?
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