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Airborne commerce

The proposed regulations for commercial drones released by the Federal Aviation Administration this week didn't clip the wings of the nascent industry as much as some had feared. Operators won't have to obtain a pilot's certificate to fly the aircraft, though they will have to pass a written test. The most significant restrictions will be a bans on flights beyond the controller's line of sight and on flights after dark. That could put a crimp in the plans of large retailers like Amazon, which wants to use unmanned aircraft to deliver packages directly to consumers' doors. But there are potentially hundreds of other applications for the technology that could stimulate the growth of new industries and businesses, a prospect that holds great promise for Maryland.

Drones are expected to revolutionize such fields as agriculture, mapping and environmental conservation and preservation. Real estate agents are already snapping aerial images of properties to boost sales, and drones could become indispensable for managing large infrastructure systems such as power lines, bridges and cellphone towers. An industry group estimates the unmanned aircraft have the potential to create 70,000 new jobs nationwide with a combined economic impact of nearly $14 billion over their first three years of commercial operations. An announcement Tuesday that the Obama administration will permit export of armed drones to U.S. allies under strict rules is also likely to help American firms gain an edge in the global drone market.

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The FAA has allowed hobbyists to fly small recreational drones largely free of regulation as long as they stay below 400 feet and at least five miles away from an airport. But compared to countries like Canada and the UK, the agency has been slow to develop rules for commercial drone operations. The U.S. has some of the most densely traveled airspace in the world, and the FAA is rightly concerned about the danger of collisions between drones and other aircraft, particularly around airports. That danger will increase exponentially when what are predicted to be thousands of commercial drones begin crowding the skies once the regulations are finalized. Densely populated urban areas like Baltimore pose particular concerns because of the profusion of other low-flying aircraft — police, news and medevac helicopters, for example — and the great potential risk if something does go wrong.

But in as much as the FAA's proposed rules present some appropriate safeguards, regulators will need to be willing to adapt along with a rapidly evolving technology. The proposed rule that drones fly only in line-of-sight operations, for example, was introduced because the agency determined that current cameras don't allow operators an expansive enough view of the sky to avoid collisions with other aircraft. Virtually all drones now use GPS to navigate, but they are relatively blind to the presence of nearby aircraft. As guidance system technology develops, however, the ability of drones to independently detect and avoid potential conflicts without any input from their operators could improve to the point where the current line-of-site restrictions are no longer necessary.

Physical safety, though, is not the only concern. The proposed guidelines for commercial drones are also expected to prompt a surge in drone use by government agencies such as police and fire departments, magnifying questions about the privacy implications of the devices. On Sunday, the same day the FAA released its proposed guidelines, the White House issued a presidential directive ordering federal agencies to disclose where in the country they are operating drones and what they are doing with the imagery they collect. The president also ordered the Commerce Department to cooperate with commercial drone operators in developing a voluntary code of conduct to ensure citizens' privacy rights are protected.

Such restrictions are necessary given the potential for abuse by drone operators, be they commercial businesses or government agencies. But it's not clear how either the FAA or the White House intend to enforce compliance with the new rules they have promulgated.

Still, the FAA rules and the White House's addendum on privacy bring the nation a step closer to the day when drones are employed to perform a dizzying range of tasks, some of which we probably can't even imagine today. It will still take two to three years more to complete the lengthy public review and comment process required to finalize the regulations released by the FAA this week. But the future, clearly, is already here.

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