The U.S. Senate today approved the reauthorization bill for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Besides obviously making sure that the FAA has the necessary money to operate, the bill also includes a provision that requires the FAA to open U.S. airspace to unmanned commercial drone flights by September 2015 and to offer a plan for how to integrate drone flights with the current commercial and general aviation system within the next 18 months.
Currently, the use of drones outside of the military is mostly restricted to hobbyists. Getting permission to fly a commercial drone mission is virtually impossible.
The bill also requires the FAA to establish six test zones for a pilot project to test how to integrate drones "into the national airspace system." It's worth noting that the FAA is already working on new regulations that would loosen the rules that currently govern the use of drones.
Drones Over Your City
Currently, drone flights are mostly restricted to military airspace and areas away from urban centers and at relatively low altitudes. The U.S. government also uses these unmanned planes to patrol its borders.
Once commercial drone activities are possible, companies like Google or Microsoft could buy their own drones and use them to collect images for their mapping products, for example (and update those images far more often than they currently can).
Safety and Privacy Concerns
There are obviously safety concerns when it comes to letting drones fly in the same airspace as commercial and private planes. Drones, at least in their current form, tend to crash more often than other planes, for example.
In addition, the ACLU is also worried about the privacy implications of potentially having an army of flying robots perform commercial aerial surveillance "without any steps to protect the traditional privacy that Americans have always enjoyed and expected."
Image credit: U.S. Air Force