SEATTLE/NEW YORK - The U.S. air safety regulator is drafting rules to permit small drones to be used for commercial purposes, a step toward allowing remote-control planes and helicopters to be deployed for everything from TV news coverage to monitoring crops.
Media companies, energy companies, farmers and other groups have been pressuring the Federal Aviation Administration to lift its ban on flying drones, known as unmanned aerial systems (UAS), for commercial use. Late last month, the agency's watchdog said the FAA was likely to miss the Sept. 30, 2015 deadline that Congress set for integrating drones into the national airspace.
The FAA told Reuters that rules for small drones are "being drafted and will be issued for comment later this year."
Industry sources said the FAA has a working draft of the regulations and is circulating it within the agency. The FAA declined to comment on whether it has formally drafted the rules but said it "is on track to issue a proposed rule for small UAS this year."
Finalizing the regulations, however, could take several years, in part because they involve numerous FAA offices and other agencies, such as the Pentagon and Department of Homeland Security, said Ted Ellett, a former FAA chief counsel who is now an attorney at Hogan Lovells in Washington, D.C.
"Until the final rule is issued, which is going to be years from now, the exemption process is the only game in town," Ellett said.
Twelve companies have petitioned the FAA to be exempt from the commercial drones ban, including eight film companies that want to use drones to shoot movie scenes. They say specially trained pilots would fly small drones only on closed sets, making them at least as safe as manned helicopters.
Drone maker Trimble Navigation Ltd is seeking an exemption for its 5-1/2-pound UX5 plane to photograph fields for surveyors or farmers, and Yamaha Motor Corp wants permission for its 141-pound RMAX helicopter to dust crops.
All the applications have been filed since late May, and the FAA is seeking public comment on them.
The clamor from industry to use drones has sparked safety and privacy concerns about skies buzzing with pilot-less aircraft that are measuring crops, supervising oil rigs, checking traffic, and delivering packages. Toy-sized drones can hover over homes, spy on people, crash into a crowd, or slam into a passenger jet.
The FAA's draft rules for small drones are likely to require the remote-control pilot and the plane to be certified under standards unique to small UAS. The planes also must weigh less than 55 pounds (25 kg), stay within the line of sight of the pilot, and keep at least 5 miles (8 km) away from airports.
Beyond that, it's anyone guess what the final rules will contain, Ellett said.
Media companies are particularly keen on drones since they are cheaper than manned aircraft and can provide a wider range of footage. As drones gain in sophistication, news organizations are eager to use them to supply a richer picture of unfolding events, from weather catastrophes to burning buildings and protests.
"It doesn't take a lot of skill to get cinema-grade footage of an event for $1,000 or less," said Matt Waite, founder of the Drone Journalism Lab and a journalism professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
In contrast, television stations typically pay thousands of dollars an hour to rent a helicopter, or several millions of dollars to own and operate one.
Vice Media, whose investors include Rupert Murdoch's Twenty-First Century Fox Inc, has been experimenting with drones to cover international news. In May, Vice News reporter Tim Pool and drone pilot Orlando de Guzman flew an unmanned helicopter outfitted with a camera over a protest camp in Sao Paulo, Brazil, live-streaming footage to the Vice News channel - a first for any news organization.
The video showed a mass of black, yellow and blue tents housing some 4,000 families who were squatting on land near a World Cup stadium to oppose Brazil's use of public money to fund the soccer championship.
"Protests normally are reduced to a seemingly small number on the printed page," said Jason Mojica, Vice News's editor-in-chief. "But when made visual from a bird's eye view, we can understand the size and scale and significance of the movement."
Sixteen media companies and news organizations, including The New York Times Co, Gannett Co Inc and McClatchy Co, filed a brief with the National Transportation Safety Board to argue that news outlets should be exempt from the drones ban because news gathering is not a "business purpose."
The Fresno Bee daily newspaper in California, part of the McClatchy chain, bought a Phantom 1 quad copter in March and outfitted it with a GoPro camera for a little over $1,000. The paper has used the drone half a dozen times, for purposes such as to take an aerial view of wild flowers near the San Joaquin river, according to Gary Funk, systems editor at the Fresno Bee.
"We are just using it when we think it's necessary," he said.
Funk said he has not heard from the FAA about the Fresno Bee's use of the drone. The FAA did not respond to requests for comment on the issue.