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Small Drones Ready For Takeoff With Final U.S. Rules, But Many Limits Remain

Routine operation of small drones for commercial or civilian purposes have clearance for takeoff. The Federal Aviation Administration Tuesday finalized rules to replace the previous case-by-case assessment of drone uses.

But some barriers remain on wider adoption of drones for good.

During fishing and clamming seasons, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife sends up a pilot and observer in a small plane around twice a week to count sportsmen and monitor the harvest.

Flying low and slow with a manned aircraft is costly and a little bit risky. But state Fish and Wildlife technology guru Jake Shapley said the FAA requirement that drones stay within the pilot's line-of-sight limits the range of this potential replacement.

"At this point, until the regulations open up and we're able to fly those (long-distance) routes, we're just in a wait and see mode,” Shapley said. “However, we know it's going to happen eventually."

Oregon's Department of Fish and Wildlife has acquired a small fleet of quadcopter drones to do habitat and big game surveys. The flight permit requires them to stay within the operator's sight and fly no more than a mile away.

Guidelines and limitations

ODFW spokesman Rick Hargrave said his agency began drone flight operations with a federal waiver that mirrors many of the requirements that are now generally applicable as part of the long-awaited FAA rules for unmanned aircraft weighing less than 55 pounds.

Those rules include flying no higher than 400 feet above the ground, staying within the remote operator’s line-of-sight and giving a wide berth to airports and critical infrastructure.

“We also acquire landowner permission before we fly over private lands,” Hargrave wrote in an email. “If the land owner is not comfortable with our survey then we don’t fly that part of the survey.”

ODFW cut back traditional aerial surveys significantly after a 2013 helicopter crash that seriously injured three crew members.

The ambitions of companies such as Amazon and Walmart to deliver packages by drone are still not legal because this entails flying beyond line-of-sight and over uninvolved people.

Delivery drone flights and over-the-horizon missions will require "see and avoid" technology to be built into unmanned aircraft systems.

“With this new rule, we are taking a careful and deliberate approach that balances the need to deploy this new technology with the FAA’s mission to protect public safety,” said FAA Administrator Michael Huerta Tuesday. “But this is just our first step. We’re already working on additional rules that will expand the range of operations.”

Under the new rules, operators need to register their drones online. Every two years, they have to pass an aviation knowledge exam for drone pilots. The aeronautics test represents an important liberalization since commercial operators currently have to have a manned aircraft pilot's license.

Other limitations remain in place. Drone flights will be permitted only during the day and at twilight. Operators could seek waivers to undertake nighttime flights, flights beyond sight of the operator and flights over people.

Separate drone operation guidelines apply to hobbyists.

A hard-to-replace human eye in the sky

Skimming over the Salish Sea in a twin-engine plane at about 800 feet altitude Tuesday, WDFW fish biologist Roy Clark scanned out the passenger seat window for the splash of yellow that indicates a shrimp pot buoy. He logged each sighting on an iPad. Later, he directed the pilot to fly over a succession of beaches and bays to count clam diggers.

The aerial survey covered four North Puget Sound counties in short order. Shapley conceded it would be difficult to replicate the capabilities of a human eye in the sky such as Clark.

"The fact that he can differentiate a group of clammers on the beach from somebody walking their dog or just staring out on the water, it's not something we can whole hog replace with software," Shapley said.

"There is a certain amount of risk out in the elements and over large bodies of water to this type of work, in addition to the expense," Clark acknowledged.

"I would miss being up in the air," said Clark about the prospect of being replaced by a drone someday. "If I was sitting watching hours of video footage from the drone it would still be a pretty good job."

In the coming months, Shapley said WDFW hopes to try out fixed-wing unmanned aircraft systems provided by a contractor. Unlike Oregon, no state agency in Washington has yet acquired a drone aircraft.

Some of the models under consideration with long-distance flying capability are manufactured in the Columbia River Gorge. That includes the ScanEagle made by Boeing Company subsidiary Insitu.

"The adoption of the new (FAA) regulations will support future business, positively impact the national economy and allow the U.S. to maintain leadership in the global expansion of unmanned system technology," said a statement emailed by Insitu on Tuesday.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.