Fed regulators closer to legalizing drones for commercial use

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Federal regulators are a step closer to legalizing drones for commercial use, and the new rules could open the floodgates for a budding industry.

Seeing drones in the sky is nothing new, but they fly under serious restrictions. On Tuesday, state lawmakers will begin considering more new rules. In the meantime, new federal rules could open the floodgates for a budding industry.

In a San Francisco warehouse, the company Airware is testing its latest software for intelligent drones. But there's something else in the air -- excitement.

"The rules that came out on Sunday from the FAA, we feel, are a big step forward for the industry," said Jesse Kallman, Airware regulatory affairs director.

Regulators proposed allowing commercial use of unmanned aircraft under 55 pounds if operators pass a written test, fly them below 500 feet, only during the daytime, within their own line of sight, and not over people unless those people are part of the flying operation.

"Obviously, the FAA's main concern is protecting people in the air, on the ground," said Kallman.

Even with those limitations, it's a game-changer for drone use in agriculture. And for startups like AeriCam. They've sold about a hundred Hollywood-quality camera drones.

"Mostly actually outside the U.S. because there's less regulations," said Jason Lam, Flying Camera designer.

But when it came time to grow the company here at home, they hit a roadblock.

"The investors just aren't willing to put the money in until they actually know what's going on with the industry," Lam said.

"In the meantime, Aericam's banking on what will likely be an exemption to the FAA rules for drones that weigh under about 4.5 pounds. You may not need a permit at all to fly their latest creation, which fits in your pocket and unfolds like a Swiss Army knife.

Already drawing interest from social media mavens, it'll likely cost a few hundred dollars, and be controlled from your cellphone.

Under the law, it would fall into the same category as a drone that showed up at a hearing on Capitol Hill.

That drone would be allowed to fly over populated areas. But companies like Airware want to see bigger drones able to do that as well.

"Delta Drone in France has been flying systems over populated areas, they've been flying them beyond line of sight, they're able to do cell tower inspections in urban environments, they're able to do search and rescue in ski resorts," Kallman said.

They say technology like parachutes would keep those flights safe. And they'll plead their case to the FAA during the 60-day comment period.
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