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FAA Proposal On Drones Highlights Safety Over Privacy Concerns


Right now, the federal government approves the use of commercial drones on a case-by-case basis. But today, the Federal Aviation Administration unveiled a long-awaited proposal for regulations on commercial drone flight. If approved, the rules could greatly expand the use of drones throughout the country. NPR's Sam Sanders has the details.

SAM SANDERS, BYLINE: The private sector has been looking forward to drone guidelines for some time. And in a media call Sunday, Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx finally outlined a proposal for new rules on commercial drone use. Foxx said they keep two basic safety issues in mind.

ANTHONY FOXX: One, keeping unmanned aircraft well clear of other aircraft, and two, mitigating any risks to people and property on the ground.

SANDERS: The rules would apply to drones under 55 pounds. They couldn't fly more than 100 miles an hour and no higher than 500 feet. The drones would also be banned at night and near airports. They'd have to be used by someone with the proper certification and they'd have to stay in that person's line of sight at all times. Ryan Calo says it's that last rule, the line-of-sight requirement, that could limit something like, say, Amazon's big plans for drone delivery.

RYAN CALO: If you have a person who has to be within line of sight of that drone, you might as well throw that person on a bicycle and have them ride the package over to you.

SANDERS: Calo is a law professor at the University of Washington who studies drones. He says even if Amazon doesn't get everything it wants out of these new rules, a lot of other groups will.

CALO: Other things like covering breaking news or precision agriculture, which is a huge use, real estate photography - those you will be able to do within the FAA's proposed rules.

SANDERS: The White House also issued new rules on drones today for federal agencies. They'll have to examine their drone data-collection policies every three years to make sure civil liberties are protected. And any federal drone use can't violate the First Amendment or discriminate against people based on things like race, religion or gender.

But the White House memo only applies to government drone use, not private use. Though the current FAA proposal doesn't address privacy concerns for commercial drones, the agency said it will revisit that issue later.

Matthew Bieschke runs the UAS America Fund, which is helping finance more than $2 billion for the commercial drone sector. Bieschke says the FAA proposal in particular made him happy.

MATTHEW BIESCHKE: Frankly, they surprised us a little bit.

SANDERS: Bieschke says the new rules were more liberal than he thought they'd be. For instance, they don't make drone pilots get the same licenses airplane pilots have to get. But Bieschke did have one complaint.

BIESCHKE: Our view is still that the timeline just isn't appropriate.

SANDERS: The FAA guidelines are still in the draft stage and have yet to undergo public comment and revision. So that means it could be a year or two until the rules are finally approved. Sam Sanders, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sam worked at Vermont Public Radio from October 1978 to September 2017 in various capacities – almost always involving audio engineering. He excels at sound engineering for live performances.
Sam Sanders
Sam Sanders is a correspondent and host of It's Been a Minute with Sam Sanders at NPR. In the show, Sanders engages with journalists, actors, musicians, and listeners to gain the kind of understanding about news and popular culture that can only be reached through conversation. The podcast releases two episodes each week: a "deep dive" interview on Tuesdays, as well as a Friday wrap of the week's news.