Feds might allow drones to fly over crowds

They'd also be able to make routine night flights under a proposed regulation.

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Marrian Zhou
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The Department of Transportation released a proposed regulation that would allow drones to fly above crowds and at night. 

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Get ready to see more drones overhead, even after hours.

The US Department of Transportation on Monday released proposed regulation that would, for the first time, allow routine drone flights above crowds and at night.

It's all part of an effort to "further integrate drones safely into the national airspace system," according to a webpage for the Federal Aviation Administration, an agency within DOT. 

"This will help communities reap the considerable economic benefits of this growing industry and help our country remain a global technology leader," US Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao said in remarks Monday to the nonprofit Transportation Research Board.

FAA didn't respond to a request for comment. 

On Tuesday, Democratic Sen. Edward Markey, of Massachusetts, called for strong privacy rules to be put in place before the FAA's proposed regulation is finalized. 

"Privacy can't be an afterthought as the FAA seeks to make it easier and safer for commercial drones to take flight," Markey said in a release. 

Drones can collect massive amounts of sensitive data from people and can be equipped with facial recognition technology as well as license plate reading software, Markey added. He's previously introduced legislation to address drone privacy issues, and on Tuesday he urged Congress to act. 

"The FAA has failed to establish any baseline privacy protections, despite its obligation to integrate drones into the national airspace," Markey said. "This neglect of Americans' right to privacy in the age of drones is unacceptable. Congress must man the controls."

Amid huge growth in the drone industry (PDF), the FAA in 2016 implemented new regulations that made it easier for pilots to use drones for everything from structural or crop inspection to search-and-rescue operations to film production. But certain restrictions, including flying over people and night flying, remained, though operators can seek waivers under certain conditions. 

In October 2017, the FAA granted the first waiver for unlimited flights of unmanned aerial vehicles over people to TV network CNN. In the same month, President Donald Trump expanded testing for flights over people, nighttime operations and at far greater distances and with packages. 

The federal government has generally encouraged the development of drone use in commercial space. In May, the FAA supported 10 drone companies like Zipline to make their way into the sky, which means faster approval for operations that could deliver medical supplies, inspect industrial sites and even transport people by air. 

Chao said the proposed regulations will be published in the Federal Register as soon as possible, and that will kick off a 60-day comment period in which "your feedback is welcome." You can learn more here.

First published Jan. 14, 2:56 p.m. PT.
Update, Jan. 15 at 10:26 a.m.: Adds Sen. Markey's statement on the FAA's proposed regulation.