Entrepreneurs in the fledgling drone industry breathed a sigh of relief Monday after federal regulators finally issued proposed rules for flying the small robotic flying machines — a plan not as tough on commercial users as many had feared.
"It's exciting," said Adam Gibson, marketing director for Ctrl.me, a 3-year-old start-up in Venice Beach that sells and repairs drones. "It's a step forward."
The rules proposed by the Federal Aviation Administration could ultimately put thousands more drones in the sky, with some of the most promising uses in spraying crops and inspecting hard-to-reach structures like cell towers, pipelines and bridges.
Not all companies were pleased with the plan's specifics, however. Internet giant Amazon, for example, would not be allowed to deliver merchandise by drone — a highly touted plan that the company proposed last year. The rules would prohibit the aerial deliveries by requiring operators to keep their drones within sight and bar them from dropping objects.
At the same time, some elected officials said the rules — which aren't expected to take effect before 2017 — don't go far enough.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) pointed to a Feb. 8 report by pilots of a Southwest Airlines plane approaching Los Angeles International Airport.
"The near miss, just days ago, between a drone and a commercial airliner on approach to LAX at an altitude of 4,000 feet demonstrates the risk that unsafe drone use, including by recreational users, poses to public safety," Feinstein said in a statement. "I believe something must be done to protect the public before it is too late, and I intend to introduce legislation soon to do just that."
The industry has been waiting for years for the rules. Currently, most commercial drone operators are banned from flying until the new rules are finalized, which may take two more years.
Only a couple of dozen firms have won exemptions from the ban. Those companies filed detailed plans for how they would keep the public safe, including having licensed pilots fly their drones.
The FAA's proposed rules require detailed safety precautions, including not flying at night. But they don't require commercial operators to get a pilot's license — a potential requirement that the industry had been lobbying hard against because of the cost. Instead, drone operators would need to pass a written test on aeronautics every two years.
It is currently legal to fly small drones for personal use or recreation. Sales of drones have soared as they have become more sophisticated and less expensive, along with concerns about their safety.
The FAA is now receiving an average of one report a day from pilots encountering drones flying dangerously close to their aircraft.
The agency said it was addressing those safety concerns by requiring operators to fly below 500 feet and keep their drones within sight. The drones must also weigh less than 55 pounds.
Companies also would not be allowed to fly the robotic aircraft directly over people. The firms would have to take extra pre-flight measures if the drone operation took place in a residential area. For example, they might ask everyone in the area to stay inside during the flight.
The agency estimated that more than 3,000 companies would be operating in the first year that the proposed rules were in place, with more than 7,500 firms in five years.
The Assn. for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, a drone trade group, sees a far greater economic potential. It estimates that more than 70,000 jobs will be created in the first three years, with an annual economic impact of more than $13 billion.
"We think there is a very large market," said Steve Gitlin, spokesman for AeroVironment, the Monrovia company that has become the Pentagon's top supplier of small drones. "Some think it could be larger than the defense market."
"This represents progress," Gitlin said of the proposed rules, "and that's a good thing."
The public now has 60 days to comment on the plan.
On Monday, Amazon executives vowed to continue with their push to fly delivery drones both in the U.S. and elsewhere.
"The FAA needs to begin and expeditiously complete the formal process to address the needs of our business, and ultimately our customers," Paul Misener, Amazon's vice president of global public policy, said in a statement. "We are committed to realizing our vision for Prime Air and are prepared to deploy where we have the regulatory support we need."