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Public safety agencies will be able to operate unmanned aircraft with fewer restrictions, in the first changes in U.S. regulations that Congress ordered to broaden domestic use of non-military drones.
Police, fire and similar departments will be able to fly drones weighing as much as 25 pounds (11.3 kilos) without applying for special approvals needed under previous regulations, the Federal Aviation Administration said today in a statement on its website.
Today’s step is an interim one until the FAA completes rules to allow small drones for commercial purposes, Ben Gielow, government relations manager for the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, said in a phone interview. Congress ordered the FAA to complete those rules within two years. A proposed regulation is due this year.
“The FAA’s sole mission and authority as it focuses on the integration of unmanned aircraft systems is safety,” the FAA said.
Congress is encouraging more U.S. drone flights under a law that became final on Feb. 14, with the goal of adapting technology used by the military in Iraq and Afghanistan. The law also requires the FAA to name six test sites by June and integrate drones into the U.S. aviation system by 2015.
The rule announced today calls for agencies to first show they can operate a drone before getting an FAA permit. Drones must fly within 400 feet (122 meters) of the ground, remain in sight of the operator and stay clear of airports, the FAA said.
The FAA also said it has streamlined the approval process for special certificates it requires for other agencies and for larger drones.
The new application process, which can be completed over the Internet, creates expedited approvals for time-sensitive emergency missions and a procedure letting applicants appeal when they are denied, according to the statement.
The FAA has received applications from 61 agencies, police departments and public universities to fly drones, according to documents the agency released in April. They range from the North Little Rock, Arkansas, police department to the U.S. Army, Air Force, Navy and Marines, according to agency records.
While the FAA has shortened the time it takes to consider requests to fly unmanned aircraft, some applicants have found the process cumbersome, Gielow said. The Arlington, Virginia- based Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International represents more than 2,100 members, including Boeing Co. (BA)’s Insitu Inc. and Aerovironment Inc. (AVAV)
A Slow Increase
Drone use by law enforcement probably will begin slowly as a few early adopters build confidence in the systems, he said.
“This will certainly make the process easier,” Gielow said.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based free-speech advocacy group, filed suit against the FAA last year to force the agency to reveal the identities of drone operators.
“I don’t think the FAA should be increasing the number of drone flights until they at least release the information on who is flying drones already,” Jennifer Lynch, a foundation staff attorney, said in a phone interview today.
The FAA released names last month of agencies that had applied to fly drones. It has not provided any additional details about the restrictions it imposes and how those drones are used, Lynch said.
The law ordered the FAA to let public safety agencies fly unmanned aircraft weighing less than 4.4 pounds. The agency expanded that to 25 pounds. Its statement gave no explanation for the change.
The FAA wrote the drone rules for public safety agencies in conjunction with the U.S. Justice Department’s National Institute of Justice, according to the statement.