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FAA proposes to allow commercial drone use

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Drone-maker Parrot is releasing two new models of miniature drones this August: the Jumping Sumo and the Rolling Spider.

WASHINGTON — Realtors, TV producers, farmers, bridge inspectors and power linemen are among the people who could regularly fly drones for work, under a new proposed rule from the Federal Aviation Administration.

Flying Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS), commonly called drones, for commercial use has been almost entirely banned in the United States, but Sunday morning’s announcement would change that.

“Today’s proposed rule is the next step in integrating unmanned aircraft systems into our nation’s airspace.” FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said in a conference call with reporters. “We are doing everything that we can to safely integrate these aircraft while ensuring that America remains the leader in aviation safety and technology.”

Under the new FAA proposal, drones that weigh less than 55 pounds would be able to fly up to 500 feet above the ground at speeds up to 100 mph. Drone operators would have to obtain a special unmanned operating certificate, and follow a handful of restrictions, including keeping the drone within sight, and avoiding hazards like restricted airspace, people, airports and other planes.

“From entertainment, to energy, to agriculture there are a host of industries interested in using UAS to improve their business,” Anthony Foxx, secretary of the Transportation Department said. “But for us at U.S. DOT the first threshold always is and must be keeping the American people safe as we move to integrate these new types of aircraft into our skies.”

One of the most significant challenges facing regulators is how to keep the small drones from coming dangerously close to planes with people on board.

In November a drone came within 20 feet of striking a plane near Oklahoma City, forcing the aircraft to take evasive action, according to FAA reports obtained by Sen. Diane Feinstein. More than 190 incidents were reported over the last 10 months of 2014, including at least two dozen near collisions.

Currently anyone wanting to operate a drone for commercial use had to get a difficult to obtain exemption from the FAA.

More than two dozen of those exceptions have been granted since the first was awarded to energy giant BP and UAV manufacturer AeroVironment in June for aerial surveys in Alaska.

The new proposed rules are much less burdensome than what has been imposed as part of the exception process.

On Jan. 5, Douglas Trudeau became the first Realtor to obtain an FAA exception to fly a drone to shoot video of houses for sale, but he was required to follow 33 detailed restrictions laid out in a 26-page letter.

To legally fly his UAV, Trudeau must have a regular pilot’s license, pass an aviation medical check, be assisted by a spotter, request permission two days in advance and limit flights to less than 35 mph and below 300 feet.

The new proposed rule does not change the long-standing regulations that allow people flying drones and model airplanes for recreational purposes.

Sunday’s proposal is not a final rule, and will be opened public comment and feedback.

“Today’s action does not authorize widespread commercial use of unmanned aircraft. That can only happen when the rule is final,” Huerta said. “In the meantime operators must go through the current process for a waiver or exemption to fly.”

A final decision on the new proposed rule could take years, however Huerta said the FAA remains committed to moving as expeditiously as possible.

Additional FAA research is underway that could create different rules for drones smaller than 4.4 pounds, and allow for drone operation beyond the line of sight.

“We’re not done yet, and we are going to ensure that we are moving as quickly as possible, and as safely as possible,” Foxx said.