By Andrea Shalal-Esa
FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said new rules, standards and policies were needed to ensure that U.S. aviation regulations and safety rules remained the world's "gold standard," as a growing number of new unmanned planes joined manned aircraft in the skies above America.
"We recognize that the expanding use of unmanned aircraft presents great opportunities, but it's also true that integrating these aircraft presents significant challenges," Huerta told a news conference.
The Aerospace Industries Association, an industry trade group, has been pressing the FAA to develop rules for allowing greater use of such drones for civil uses such as firefighting, weather tracking and agriculture.
AIA President Marion Blakey told the news conference that unmanned planes represented "America's next great aviation frontier" and predicted that domestic support for drones would grow as they were increasingly used to forecast severe storms, locate stranded individuals and boost agricultural output.
She welcomed release of the FAA road map and said it would help frame the policies needed to ensure greater use of such aircraft in coming years -- and help the United States maintain its edge in the unmanned vehicle market.
"We think it's critical to not lose sight of the variety, in fact, the enormity of the benefits that await our society with this breakthrough technology," she said.
Huerta said about 80 law enforcement agencies and several universities were already operating unmanned planes or drones in the United States, under public use waivers granted by the FAA on a case-by-case basis.
In September, the FAA also granted the first waiver for commercial use of a small unmanned Scan Eagle plane built by Boeing Co's Insitu unit, which was used by an oil company to survey ice and wildlife in the Arctic, he said.
Over the next five years, an estimated 7,500 small unmanned craft could be operating in U.S. airspace provided appropriate regulations are put in place, Huerta said.
"Innovation is what makes America grow and prosper," he said. "As we move into the second century of flight, we're transforming our airspace in ways to take advantage of technology breakthroughs and to maintain our position of global leadership."
The FAA released three documents aimed at meeting a congressional deadline of September 2015 for integrating unmanned aircraft into the national airspace.
Huerta said the policy requires test site operators to comply with federal, state and other privacy laws; to prepare a written plan for use of any data gathered during testing; and to conduct an annual review of privacy practices.
Privacy advocates welcomed that emphasis, but urged further safeguards.
"It's crucial that as we move forward with drone use, those procedural protections are followed by concrete restrictions on how data from drones can be used and how long it can be stored," American Civil Liberties Union legislative counsel Christopher Calabrese said in a statement.
Huerta declined to comment when asked about progress on winnowing the sites from 26 proposals received, saying only that the FAA expected to meet a congressional deadline for announcing the six finalists by the end of the year.
A multi-agency group including the FAA, the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) also released a comprehensive plan to safely accelerate the integration of unmanned planes into the national airspace.
(Reporting by Andrea Shalal-Esa; Editing by Leslie Gevirtz)