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FAA eyes rules for small unmanned aircraft

Vector Hawk, a small unmanned aircraft.
Vector Hawk, a small unmanned aircraft.
Lockheed Martin

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) intends to unveil a plan later this year for integrating small unmanned aircraft into the nation’s airspace, according to an agency official.

The proposed regulations will address how small unmanned aircraft, which typically weigh less than 55 pounds, could safely fly in U.S. civil airspace. The public will have a chance to comment on the proposal before the document is finalized, said Jim Williams, the FAA’s manager of unmanned aircraft integration.

Currently, commercial operations are authorized by the FAA only on a case-by-case basis, and this has happened only once, in the Arctic in 2013, Williams said May 13 at an unmanned systems conference in Orlando, Fla. The FAA is working with representatives of the agriculture, energy and film-making industries to allow “specific, limited, low-risk uses in advance” of the regulations being completed.

In many case, small unmanned aircraft could be less expensive and safer to use than manned aircraft, Williams said. Farmers could use them to monitor their crops and ensure they apply the right amounts of fertilizer and pesticides. Energy companies could use such aircraft to inspect pipelines, power lines and oil-drilling sites, and filmmakers could use them for overhead shots.

A key technological challenge for the FAA is making sure that pilot-less planes and helicopters have systems to “detect and avoid” other aircraft, Williams noted.

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