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FAA unveils plan for letting drones fly over US airspace

WASHINGTON--The Federal Aviation Administration on Thursday released an initial plan for integrating unmanned aircraft more broadly into U.S. airspace by September 2015, along with a privacy policy for six drone test sites that will be chosen by the end of the year.

FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said new rules, standards and policies were needed to ensure that U.S. aviation regulations and safety rules remained the world's “gold standard,” as a growing number of new unmanned planes joined manned aircraft in the skies above America.

“We recognize that the expanding use of unmanned aircraft presents great opportunities, but it's also true that integrating these aircraft presents significant challenges,” Huerta told a news conference.

The Aerospace Industries Association, an industry trade group, has been pressing the FAA to develop rules for allowing greater use of such drones for civil uses such as firefighting, weather tracking and agriculture.

AIA President Marion Blakey told the news conference that unmanned planes represented “America's next great aviation frontier” and predicted that domestic support for drones would grow as they were increasingly used to forecast severe storms, locate stranded individuals and boost agricultural output.

She welcomed release of the FAA road map and said it would help frame the policies needed to ensure greater use of such aircraft in coming years — and help the United States maintain its edge in the unmanned vehicle market.

“We think it's critical to not lose sight of the variety, in fact, the enormity of the benefits that await our society with this breakthrough technology,” she said.

Huerta said about 80 law enforcement agencies and several universities were already operating unmanned planes or drones in the United States, under public use waivers granted by the FAA on a case-by-case basis.

In September, the FAA also granted the first waiver for commercial use of a small unmanned Scan Eagle plane built by Boeing Co.'s Insitu unit, which was used by an oil company to survey ice and wildlife in the Arctic, he said.

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