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FAA offers framework to legalize commercial -- but not delivery -- drones

The long-awaited rules for unmanned aircraft could open the door for much more regular use of the devices. However, delivery drones don't fit in the new proposed regulations.

Drones like this Inspire 1 could become a much more common sight in the skies in the near future.Photo by Getty

The Federal Aviation Administration took an important step Sunday toward legalizing and regulating routine use of commercial drones -- though don't expect a delivery drone to bring you a fresh pizza anytime soon.

The agency released its proposed requirements for unmanned commercial aircraft, saying the drones must weigh less than 55 pounds and be operated in daylight within the line of sight of the drone's operator. Additionally, the drones must fly under 500 feet, no faster than 100 miles per hour, and away from manned aircraft. They must never fly over people except those directly involved with the flight.

The FAA for now doesn't allow for regular use of commercial drones, so Hollywood studios and others have needed to gain special waivers to use the devices today. While the new rules provide for broad use of drones to shoot TV shows or movies, survey agricultural land or inspect a bridge, they nix the potential use of delivery drones, like those being developed by Amazon and Google, an FAA representative confirmed. However, the rules are still subject to change before being finalized.

In response, Amazon released a statement Sunday, saying it's not giving up on its goals for its "Prime Air" drone-delivery service.

"The FAA needs to begin and expeditiously complete the formal process to address the needs of our business, and ultimately our customers," Paul Misener, Amazon vice president of Global Public Policy, said in a statement. "We are committed to realizing our vision for Prime Air and are prepared to deploy where we have the regulatory support we need."

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An Amazon delivery drone, which won't be allowed under the proposed rules.Photo by Amazon

The creation of new drones and the interest in using them commercially has exploded in the past few years. The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International claims the first three years of integration of drones in the US skies will create more than 70,000 jobs and provide an economic impact of $13.6 billion. Attention to safely integrating drones into US airspace has grown since Amazon in late 2013 unveiled plans for commercial delivery drones, as well as when a recreational drone crashed last month on the grounds of the White House.

"We have tried to be flexible in writing these rules," FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said in a statement Sunday. "We want to maintain today's outstanding level of aviation safety without placing an undue regulatory burden on an emerging industry."

Drone makers appear to be pleased with the proposal, especially because it's more lenient than what's already been required as part of the special waiver process.

"This proposed rule is a critical milestone in the [unmanned aircraft systems] integration process, and one that is long overdue," AUVSI CEO Brian Wynne said in a statement. "UAS technology has largely remained grounded while many prospective users wait for the regulatory framework to catch up. This is a good first step."

The proposed regulations come the same day the White House released a presidential memorandum that called for federal agencies using drones domestically to be transparent on how they are utilizing them and that their collection of any data with unmanned aircraft doesn't violate civil liberties or the First Amendment.

As part of the proposed regulations, a commercial drone operator must be at least 17 years old, pass an aeronautical knowledge test and obtain an FAA drone operator certificate. While a knowledge test will be required every two years to maintain certification, a small-drone operator wouldn't need any further private pilot certificates.

The new rules won't govern the use of recreational drones or model airplanes. Using those devices doesn't require FAA approval, but the agency last year provided a framework for using those devices, including only flying them within an operator's line-of-sight.

The FAA is now asking for public comment over the next 60 days, after its proposed rules are published on Regulations.gov. The FAA is also asking for public comment on potentially more flexible framework for "micro" drones under 4.4 pounds.

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