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Business Drones Face New Rules

The first detailed U.S. rules for flights of small commercial drones go into effect Monday, including nationwide licensing requirements for pilots and a ban on nighttime operations.

The first detailed U.S. rules for flights of small commercial drones go into effect Monday, including nationwide licensing requirements for pilots and a ban on nighttime operations.

But the long-awaited move won’t satisfy pent-up demand for more-complex uses of unmanned aircraft—especially at higher altitudes and beyond the sight of operators—or approval of aerial vehicles substantially heavier than the 55-pound limit covered by the regulations.

Capping more than two years of debate, some 4,500 written comments and escalating industry turmoil, the rules also won’t resolve growing controversy over privacy protections.  On such issues, local governments increasingly are pre-empting Washington by staking out positions before federal agencies reach a consensus.

Recognizing the need for quick action, the Federal Aviation Administration earlier this year established separate registration requirements for all drone users. Agency leaders also have pledged to craft follow-on rules with unprecedented speed, led by regulations due to be released by year-end allowing unmanned vehicles to start flying over crowds.

While stressing the need for caution and adequate deliberation, FAA chief Michael Huerta nevertheless has said the agency can’t afford to “act at the [traditional] speed of government.” Integrating drones into the national airspace “certainly is the number one issue” at FAA headquarters, Terry Biggio, a senior FAA air-traffic-control official, told an air-safety conference in Washington last week.

Yet agency officials haven’t laid out the scope of future rules decisions.  And the relevant technologies, as well as safety risks associated with them, continue to develop significantly faster than federal efforts to control them. Some researchers have identified hundreds of incidents in which pilots reported drones flying dangerously close to airports in recent years, prompting many safety experts, drone proponents and lawmakers to call for automated digital “fencing” to prevent such incursions.

Airline-pilot union leaders, meanwhile, still complain about what they contend is a fundamental gap in the regulatory structure: Congress has blocked the FAA from imposing tough new regulations on hobbyists and, by extension, many casual or recreational drone users.

“We have one shot to do this right,” Tim Canoll, president of the Air Line Pilots Association, told the same air-safety conference, adding that incorporating unmanned vehicles can’t be allowed to degrade current safeguards and “simply cannot shortchange the safety of the system.” He said the union, among other things, advocates that the FAA “take a stronger stance in ensuring” that pilots of commercial drones receive adequate ground and flight training.

For now, FAA officials are focused on ensuring that testing facilities are able to cope with the expected influx of tens of thousands of pilot applicants. Through the end of the decade, business uses of drones are projected to attract millions of new operators across the U.S. annually, ranging from inspecting buildings and bridges to spraying crops to searching for downed power lines.

In response, the agency has created and staffed two senior-level offices dealing exclusively with drone policy. Shortly, Mr. Huerta is about to release the names of appointees to a new industrywide advisory committee tasked with charting a course for future policies, enforcement priorities and regulatory initiatives.

Write to Andy Pasztor at andy.pasztor@wsj.com

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