By Alwyn Scott
NEW YORK (Reuters) - The U.S. aviation regulator proposed rules on Sunday for flying drones for commercial purposes that would lift some restrictions but would still limit activities such as inspections of pipelines that have been eyed by companies as a potentially breakthrough use of the technology.
The long-awaited draft rules from the Federal Aviation Administration governing use of unmanned aircraft require pilots to obtain special pilot certificates, stay away from bystanders and fly only during the day. They limit flying speed to 100 miles per hour (160 kph) and the altitude to 500 feet (152 meters) above ground level.
The rules also say aircraft must remain in the line of sight of its radio-control pilot, which could limit inspection of pipelines, crops, and electrical towers that are one of the major uses envisioned by companies.
The FAA acknowledged the limitation but said those flights could be made possible with a secondary spotter working with the pilot of the drone.
"This rule does not deal with beyond line of sight, but does allow for the use of a visual observer to augment line of sight by the operator of the unmanned aircraft," FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said in a conference call with reporters on Sunday.
The draft rules, nearly 10 years in the making, still must undergo public comment and revision before becoming final, a process expected to take at least a year.
If they survive in their current form, they would be unlikely to help Amazon.com in its quest to eventually deliver packages with unmanned drones, since they require an FAA-certified small drone pilot to fly the aircraft and keep it line of sight at all times - factors not envisioned in the online retailer's plan.
Huerta also said, "We don't consider or contemplate in this rule carrying packages outside of the aircraft itself."
RULES EXPECTED TO EVOLVE
Huerta said the rules set a framework for regulating drone flights and would evolve based on ongoing discussions with industry and technology developments.
The rules continue current restrictions against filming of crowds by news organizations, but Huerta said he expected those procedures to be developed as part of discussions with news groups.
Industry experts said the rules did not contain onerous pilot standards that could have severely restricted commercial flying.
They would not require drone pilots to undergo the medical tests or flight hours required of manned aircraft pilots. Commercial drone operators would need to be at least 17 years old, pass an aeronautical knowledge test and be vetted by the Transportation Security Administration.
“We have tried to be flexible in writing these rules,” said Huerta.
Separately, President Barack Obama issued a memo outlining principles for government use of drones, covering such issues as privacy protections and oversight of federal drone use.
The draft rules, while still restrictive, appeared less onerous than the industry had been worried about. There had been concern, for example, that the FAA would require drone operators to attend a flight-training school and obtain a certification similar to that of a manned aircraft pilot.
"I am very pleased to see a much more reasonable approach to future regulation than many feared," said Brendan Schulman, a lawyer who works on drone issues at Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel in New York.
The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), also praised the draft. "This is a good first step in an evolutionary process that brings us closer to realizing the many societal and economic benefits of UAS technology," AUVSI President Brian Wynne said in a statement.
The model aircraft community was more cautious.
As hobbyists had worried, the rule does not address a large category of people who have purchased drones but don't know about the safety codes of hobby groups, and may inadvertently fly them into dangerous situations.
The FAA has tried to address that group by publishing fliers and websites that point out the safety risks. Huerta said the agency would also take action against those operating drones carelessly or recklessly.
"While we have not yet fully reviewed the proposed rule, we can say that regulations relating to the commercial use of small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS) should not apply to the longstanding, educational hobby of flying model aircraft," the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA), the world's largest hobby group, with 170,000 members, said in a statement.
(Additional reporting by Lucia Mutikani in Washington; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Frances Kerry)