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Commercial Drone Rules Finalized

The Department of Transportation and Federal Aviation Administration have finalized rules for the use of small unmanned aircraft systems (otherwise known as UAS or drones).

TV news, sports and entertainment operations are increasingly using drones to get close to the action or capture the right shot remotely.

The rules, which go into effect in late August, apply to drones under 55 pounds being used for commercial (non-hobbyist) operations.

Drone operators must keep the aircraft within line of sight and can only operate them during daylight hours or in twilight if it has warning lights.

They also set limits on height and speed and prohibit flights over "unprotected people on the ground who aren’t directly participating in the UAS operation."

There will be a waiver process if an operator can prove the flight will be safe.

Drone pilots must be at least 16 years old and have a remote pilot certificate with a UAS rating, or supervised by someone with those certifications. 

The FCC will not require drones to comply with current airworthiness standards for aircraft, but pilots will have to perform preflight visuals and operational checks, including the communications link.

The rules do not deal with privacy, but the FAA and DOT strongly encourage UAS pilots to check local and state laws before gathering info via remote sensing or photography.

Related: Court Denies Challenge to Lack of Drone Privacy Rules

The FAA will also issue recommended privacy best practices and "will issue new guidance to local and state governments on drone privacy issues" associated with the privacy “best practices" developed by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which were published last month.

To remind folks of that effort, NTIA Tuesday posted details of the process that produced those voluntary privacy guidelines after the President called for promoting drones while protecting privacy and civil liberties.

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), a tech-savvy former communications exec who has been active on the drone front, praised the FAA and DOT for finalizing the rules for commercial use of drones.

"Unmanned aerial systems have the potential to totally revolutionize our economy and way of life, on a scale similar to that of the invention of the wireless cell phone," said the former wireless cell phone exec. "We need to be looking at how we can safely integrate drones into American airspace, both right now and for the future, and I applaud the FAA for moving the ball forward today. That said, we still lag behind many other countries in adopting this technology. I encourage the FAA to continue to work with stakeholders and industry to ensure that the United States stays globally competitive in fully embracing the potential of new innovation in unmanned technology.”

The Consumer Technology Association, which represents drone tech companies among many others, was pleased.

"We're pleased to see the FAA strike an appropriate balance of innovation and safety in its authorization for commercial drones and recognition of the value this rapidly-evolving technology offers," said CTA VP Douglas Johnson, who served on the FAA USA rulemaking committee and registration task force. "This is a critical milestone toward the safe integration of drones into the national airspace system - and a far better approach than the current exemption-based system - but clearly additional steps are needed such as addressing 'beyond-line-of-sight' operations, which will be a true game changer."

But to change the game, states and localities need to play by the federal rules, he suggested.

"[T]he growing tangle of misaligned, conflicting rules at the state and local levels threatens to choke this nascent technology," added Johnson. "To fully realize drones' remarkable economic potential - creating jobs, maximizing efficiencies, lowering consumer costs and fueling the U.S. tech economy - state lawmakers and local officials must defer to federal rules."

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.