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Proposed drone rules allow limited access for some businesses

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The Federal Aviation Administration has released long-awaited proposed rules to regulate commercial drone use. The rules would allow anyone over 17 to take a test to get permission to fly a commercial drone without needing a pilot’s license, a key concern of the drone industry.

Commercial drones would have to fly below 500 feet, only during daylight, and always be visible to their operators.

Those restrictions have the industry searching for ways to convince federal regulators that drones can be operated safely with more autonomy, even as some sectors are celebrating what they hope will be new legal applications of drones.

“You could make sure your crops are healthy, if you’re a farmer,” says Ryan Calo of the University of Washington, who specializes in robotics law, “cover a breaking news event … you could film a movie.”

Tim McClain, who runs a drone research program at Brigham Young University is also looking forward to the new rules.

“Under the current rules, it’s just very difficult for us to test, we have to go to restricted airspace, military installations,” which can be financially costly, says McClain. He adds that the type of research the current regulations restrict are the very ones that could make commercial drones more safe in the future, with less human oversight.

But the FAA’s requirements that commercial drones not fly over populated areas and always be visible to their operators have some in the industry frustrated. Amazon put out a statement saying the new rules would limit its ability to bring to market a planned drone delivery program called “Prime Air.”

“The FAA’s proposed rules … could take one or two years to be adopted and, based on the proposal, even then those rules wouldn’t allow Prime Air to operate in the United States,” Paul Misener, vice president of global public policy at Amazon, said in a written statement.

“We are committed to realizing our vision for Prime Air and are prepared to deploy where we have the regulatory support we need,” Misener says. 

An Amazon spokesperson, in an email to Marketplace, said that last statement was key, pointing out that the FAA’s proposed rules are U.S. rules.

Australia, Japan and parts of Europe are either already allowing more autonomous commercial drone operations or are considering such moves, says Adam Thierer, who researches technology policy at George Mason University.

Meanwhile, the FAA is taking a better safe than sorry approach, “which is completely understandable, since the FAA is under a mandate to keep the nation’s airspace safe for aircraft operation,” Thierer says. 

After all, commercial drones could weigh as much as 55 pounds and fly as fast as 100 miles per hour.

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