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Hopes Soar As Drone Enthusiasts Greet New Rule Proposal


The Federal Aviation Administration has made its long-awaited announcement of how unmanned aerial vehicles - drones - should be regulated in the U.S. Drone operators have greeted the proposed rules with enormous relief. They were worried about restrictions after the accidental crash of a small drone on the White House lawn last month. NPR's John Burnett on the new rules.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Robert Youens is a commercial drone operator in Austin. His company is called Camera Wings Aerial Photography. His workhorse is a 10-pound quadcopter, smaller than a sombrero.

ROBERT YOUENS: I will let you know that we're flying in a pretty heavy wind, so I am going to be a little extra careful taking off here.


YOUENS: OK, now that I've got it off, we're just going to check all the flight characteristics of the aircraft. It looks really good.

BURNETT: This is the kind of aircraft for which the FAA released draft regulations yesterday. In a nutshell, commercial drones like this one would have to weigh less than 55 pounds, fly under 500 feet, fly slower than a hundred miles per hour, fly only in daylight and stay within the sight of the pilot. Robert Youens is OK with what he's heard so far.

YOUENS: I think most of what they laid out - the weight limitations are a bit high, but I can go with that. Flying limited to daylight hours I think is a good idea. Flying line-of-sight so we can get out of the way of aircraft - and I like the fact that people have to pass a test and have an understanding of controlled airspace.

BURNETT: The rule allowing only line-of-sight flying would restrict the kind of delivery drones being explored by But industry watchers say the technology is just not there yet for drones to avoid obstacles on their own. The suggested regulations would not affect recreational drone operators, who merely have to obey safe flying guidelines.

But commercial operators would have to go through a three-step certification process. First, the aircraft must be registered with the FAA. Second, the operator has to be cleared by the Transportation Security Administration, and then they have to pass a written FAA test. Andrew Amato is editor of

ANDREW AMATO: My biggest concern is, between getting a registration number and getting vetted by TSA - you know, how long is that going to take? How long is this process of becoming a certified pilot going to take?

BURNETT: Amato is relieved the FAA did not propose treating unmanned aerial vehicles like airplanes. So operators will not have to get a private pilot's license, and the aircraft won't have to obtain an FAA airworthiness certificate. Amato says he's also relieved the FAA rules don't restrict their burgeoning industry. Drones are being used to inspect towers, bridges and levees - to look at farmers' fields and to photograph real estate from the air.

AMATO: If they had said, you know, you need to report every flight you do, schedule flying ahead of time for every house you want to take pictures of, for every time a farmer wants to survey their fields - to have to go and report that every time would be a hassle, if not a nightmare.

BURNETT: The proposed rules would also prohibit commercial drones from flying near airports and over people who don't know there's an unmanned vehicle filming them. The FAA will now open a sixty-day period for public comments before the final rules on drones are hammered out. John Burnett, NPR News, Austin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.