Commercial Drones Nearer as Public Reaction Less Than Expected

The U.S. government’s first attempt to set widespread rules for the use of civilian drones by businesses is drawing less reaction from the public than expected, a development that may help speed implementation of the proposal.

The Federal Aviation Administration’s blueprint of drone rules received fewer than 4,000 outside comments as of early Friday, the last day for the public to formally petition the agency to alter the proposal.

“I’m surprised. I thought we’d have a lot more than that,” said John McGraw, a former deputy safety director for the FAA who now works as an aerospace consultant to companies including drone makers.

“Tens of thousands of comments” was the estimate a Government Accountability Office director gave Congress in December, saying it would take until 2017 to sift through all the anticipated public response. Even a separate drone proposal last year that applied only to hobbyists and not businesses garnered more than 30,000 comments.

It’s not clear why there was less reaction to the commercial-drone proposal. The agency isn’t permitted to comment while a rule is under development. The proposal would allow flights by real-estate agents, filmmakers and other businesses as long as the operator passes a knowledge test, flies at low altitudes and keeps away from crowds. Drones also must weigh less than 55 pounds (25 kilograms).

People filing comments so far include individuals who want broader freedom to fly than what the FAA has proposed and traditional pilots who are worried that the rules don’t include enough safety requirements.

The Small UAV Coalition, a trade group representing companies including Amazon.com Inc. and Google Inc., urged the FAA to allow drone delivery flights. Both Amazon and Google are testing unmanned aircraft that would deliver packages. While the FAA has given the companies some latitude to do controlled testing, such a delivery method would still be prohibited initially under the most recent regulatory proposal.

The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, which also represents drone companies, said the FAA should allow night flights and drone piloting by remote video images as long as users could demonstrate it was safe.

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