Baltimore's nascent commercial drone industry has been growing in a gray area for the past few years, experimenting with videos like one that caught last year's Monument Lighting ceremony from the air and taking on real estate clients while facing the threat of fines from the federal government.
After what felt like a long wait, operators of the commercial unmanned aircraft say the rules proposed Sunday by the Federal Aviation Administration are a good compromise that will eliminate uncertainty while ending some practices, such as flying at night.
"It felt like Christmas," said Terry Kilby, who is co-owner of the Baltimore aerial photography company Elevated Element and who listened in on the FAA's conference call announcing the rules. "This is something we've been waiting for for years. There were a lot of predictions one way or another; people felt the first set of rules would be much more strict."
Small-drone operators around the region have been shooting aerial pictures for real estate agents, mapping land for developers, even shooting video for documentaries. Some in the industry believe small drones will continue to become more common, inspecting bridges and cell towers, monitoring crops, and more.
The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International estimates that drones will create 70,000 jobs with an economic impact of more than $13.6 billion in the first three years after their integration into U.S. skies.
But the popularity of unmanned aircraft has outpaced their regulation. While people were allowed to fly drones as a hobby, commercial operators faced the possibility of $10,000 fines.
There have been cases of the drones striking buildings or causing other problems. Last month, a drone that its operator lost control of flew over the White House fence and crashed on the lawn before Secret Service agents could block it.
The FAA currently bans commercial drone flights except for a few dozen companies that have been granted waivers. That ban will remain in effect until the regulations become final in two to three years, but FAA officials plan to continue granting waivers case by case. About 300 waiver requests are pending and new requests are being filed almost daily.
The rules proposed Sunday would ban the aircraft from flying at night or close to an airport. They also limit flying over people "not involved" with the flight. The rules require operators to keep the drone within eyeshot — dashing, at least for now, Amazon and other large retailers' hopes for aerial package delivery.
"We have tried to be flexible in writing these rules," FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said Sunday. "We want to maintain today's outstanding level of aviation safety without placing an undue regulatory burden on an emerging industry."
Amazon executives said the proposed rule requiring the operator to keep the drone in sight won't allow Prime Air, the name for the future drone package delivery system, to operate.
"We are committed to realizing our vision for Prime Air and are prepared to deploy where we have the regulatory support we need," said Paul Misener, an Amazon vice president, in a statement.
Commercial operators also would be required to pass a knowledge test administered by the agency as well as a federal security check. The small drones could travel as fast as 100 mph and as high as 500 feet — roughly the height of the former Bank of America building at 10 Light Street in downtown Baltimore.
The proposed rules are open for public comment for 60 days and could be revised. The final rules may include a separate category with fewer restrictions for very small drones, likely to be defined as less than 4.4 pounds.
The FAA is researching technology that officials hope will enable small drones to fly safely beyond the sight of operators, Huerta said. He emphasized that introduction of commercial drones into the national airspace will be a staged process. The government also is looking ahead to how larger drones might be allowed to fly in airspace shared by manned aircraft, for example, he said.
One of the key safety concerns is that without a human on board the ability to "see and avoid" other aircraft is limited. Another concern is that the link between the operator and a remote control aircraft can be broken, causing the drone to fly away until it loses power or collides with something.
Skye de Moya, the co-owner of aerial photography company SkyeCam Productions in Baltimore, said the business already follows most of the proposed rules, never going above 400 feet and keeping the drones in sight, for instance. She said she found the proposed rules "pretty reasonable," but hopes the restriction on flying at night can be changed so they can continue to shoot concerts. Her company also captured video of last year's Monument Lighting ceremony with a drone for the Downtown Partnership.
"If they could just change that one it would be great," de Moya said of the night flying restriction.
Steve Hane, owner of Gaithersburg-based MetroAir Photo, which shoots photos and videos from helicopters and airplanes around the Baltimore and Washington metro areas, said he's been testing drones as a hobbyist but hasn't used them in his business for fear of running afoul of the FAA. He said he hopes to add drones once the "reasonable" rules are final.
"I'm an established photographer, so I'm not going to go out and do something that's not sanctioned by the FAA," he said. "My interest is in understanding the tool so when it becomes legal for commercial use, I can do that."
In a big concession to industry, the FAA said it won't require an "airworthiness certificate" for small drones as it does for manned airplanes and helicopters, a rigorous review process that can take years.
Even with the proposed safety restrictions, drones can transform urban infrastructure management, farming, public safety, coastal security, military training, search and rescue, disaster response and more, the White House said in a presidential memorandum on privacy released in conjunction with the rules.
The memorandum requires federal agencies to review privacy and civil rights protections before deploying drone technology and to adhere to a range of controls. Personally identifiable information collected in drone flights is to be kept no longer than 180 days, although there are exceptions.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.