Saturday, December 31, 2011

FAA Plans to Propose Small Drone Rules in January 2012

Via LA Times -

Drone aircraft, best known for their role in hunting and destroying terrorist hide-outs in Afghanistan, may soon be coming to the skies near you.

Police agencies want drones for air support to spot runaway criminals. Utility companies believe they can help monitor oil, gas and water pipelines. Farmers think drones could aid in spraying their crops with pesticides.

"It's going to happen," said Dan Elwell, vice president of civil aviation at the Aerospace Industries Assn. "Now it's about figuring out how to safely assimilate the technology into national airspace."

That's the job of the Federal Aviation Administration, which plans to propose new rules for the use of small drones in January, a first step toward integrating robotic aircraft into the nation's skyways.

The agency has issued 266 active testing permits for civilian drone applications but hasn't permitted drones in national airspace on a wide scale out of concern that the pilotless craft don't have an adequate "detect, sense and avoid" technology to prevent midair collisions.

Other concerns include privacy — imagine a camera-equipped drone buzzing above your backyard pool party — and the creative ways in which criminals and terrorists might use the machines.


Sheriff's Department Cmdr. Bob Osborne said that there's "no doubt" that the department is interested in using drones. "It's just that the FAA hasn't come up with workable rules that we can harness it. If those roadblocks were down, we'd want to use it."

Drones' low-cost appeal has other industries interested as well.

Farmers in Japan already use small drones to automatically spray their crops with pesticides, and more recently safety inspectors used them at the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Archaeologists in Russia are using small drones and their infrared cameras to construct a 3-D model of ancient burial mounds. Officials in Tampa Bay, Fla., want to use them for security surveillance at next year's Republican National Convention.

But the FAA says there are technical issues to be addressed before they're introduced in civil airspace. Among them is how to respond if a communication link is lost with a drone — such as when it falls out of the sky, takes a nose dive into a backyard pool or crashes through someone's roof.


Drones could also be useful to real estate agents to showcase sprawling properties. Oil and gas companies want to utilize them to keep an eye on their pipelines. Even organizations delivering humanitarian assistance want to use drones.

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