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The White House
Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release

FACT SHEET: Enabling a New Generation of Aviation Technology

This week, the Obama Administration will be highlighting America’s capacity for creativity and invention and how our innovative progress over the last seven and a half years has helped continue to make our economy the strongest and most durable in the world. To further grow our economy and encourage innovation, today, the Obama Administration is announcing ground rules to govern commercial, scientific, public safety and other non-recreational uses of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) —commonly known as “drones—in the National Airspace System. These ground rules will enable the safe expansion of a new generation of aviation technologies that will create jobs, enhance public safety, and advance scientific inquiry.

Since President Obama took office in 2009, aviation technologies have emerged that are powering a revolution in unmanned flight. The development of these technologies has made drones commercially available at scale for the first time. Commercial operators are using unmanned aircraft for a wide variety of applications, and consumers can choose from scores of vehicles of different sizes and capacities, many of which can be taken out of a box, launched directly into flight, and operated from a smart phone or a tablet.

Today, the Department of Transportation is publishing the final “Small UAS” rule. This rule provides the first national, uniform guidelines for non-recreational operation of unmanned aircraft systems under 55 pounds. Under the new rule, drone flight will be permitted for commercial, scientific, public, and educational purposes, pursuant to a set of operational and safety requirements.

We are in the early days of an aviation revolution that will transform how we gather information about our world, enable more accurate science, move products around the country, and protect public health and the environment. In the short term, unmanned aircraft will provide significant benefits in areas like:

  • Agriculture: Unmanned aircraft can monitor crop health in real-time for farmers who are trying to manage farms that are hundreds or even thousands of acres. By reducing the need for manned aircraft in agricultural operations, drones can help reduce fatal agricultural aviation accidents and can increase crop yields by providing higher-quality data about the ground below. 
  • Safer infrastructure inspection: Unmanned aircraft systems can also save lives by helping workers inspect cell phone towers, bridges, pipelines, electric lines, and oil rigs. For example, all 300,000 communications towers in the United States must be routinely inspected, and workers can be injured and even killed during these inspections. Using unmanned aircraft systems, workers can inspect towers—and other kinds of infrastructure, like utility lines, bridges, or railways—more safely.
  • Scientific research: Scientists and engineers can use unmanned aircraft for more effective environmental monitoring of our Nation’s natural resources, wildlands, and waterways.

Industry estimates suggest that, over the next 10 years, commercial unmanned aircraft systems could generate more than $82 billion for the U.S. economy and by 2025, the industry could be supporting as many as 100,000 new jobs.

The Administration believes that expanded use of drones must be done responsibly, with clear rules of the road that ensure strong safety and privacy protections. Our aviation system has historically been designed around manned aircraft, and unmanned aircraft systems will need to be carefully integrated into the National Airspace System to protect airplanes, helicopters, and the people and property over which they will fly. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) will work closely with local and state governments, airports, pilots, and companies around the country in the months ahead to make sure the rule is safely implemented.

To advance strong privacy protections, last year the President issued a Presidential Memorandum, Promoting Economic Competitiveness While Safeguarding Privacy, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties in Domestic Use of Unmanned Aircraft Systems. In line with the Presidential Memorandum, Federal agencies, including the Department of Defense, Department of Justice and Department of Transportation, have instituted strong unmanned aircraft systems privacy policies to protect the public. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration has also worked with industry and advocacy groups to develop national best practices, to which major companies like Amazon and Google have committed. Building on these efforts, the Administration is launching a new privacy campaign to educate pilots and companies. Among other steps, the FAA will direct potential commercial drone pilots—also called “remote pilots”—to review information on privacy protections as part of their certification process, and will promote strong privacy standards during the unmanned aircraft systems registration process.

To demonstrate the potential benefits of unmanned aircraft for the public, the Obama Administration is also announcing new Federal initiatives, including a partnership between the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the FAA related to unmanned aircraft systems traffic management, and other Federal programs to deploy unmanned aircraft to respond to disasters and manage and monitor the environment.

Further details on the rule, privacy actions and new initiatives are outlined below.

Safely Integrating Unmanned Aircraft

As a new technology, unmanned aircraft operations have to date been limited to hobbyists or have required a special exemption from the FAA. The new rule requires that unmanned aircraft to be flown according to a simple set of rules that will protect people on the ground and manned aircraft. Rules include:

  • A requirement to avoid operating unmanned aircraft over people;
  • A requirement for non-recreational remote pilots to pass a written knowledge test and to go through the same security vetting process as traditional manned-aircraft pilots;
  • A requirement for unmanned aircraft to stay at least 5 miles from airports and, among other reasonable restrictions, generally fly at an altitude below 400 feet, creating a safe buffer between unmanned and manned aircraft, which can generally fly no lower than 500 feet; and
  • A requirement for remote pilots to keep unmanned aircraft within visual sight.

More details will be available from the FAA.

Looking forward, in consultation with industry and research partners, the FAA is considering additional rules that will further enable safe unmanned aircraft operations—including, for example, to govern the flight of unmanned aircraft over people. This rule is the first step towards a long-term vision of the airspace of the future that will be fully integrated, allowing for the routine safe operation of unmanned aircraft alongside manned aircraft.

Protecting Privacy

While this rule prohibits unmanned aircraft flight over people for safety reasons, as commercial unmanned aircraft use expands, companies will be able to gather new kinds of data. While this possibility creates significant economic opportunities, it also raises important privacy considerations. Entities that plan to use unmanned aircraft systems to gather personal information should have plans in place for how they collect, use and protect personal information. Like basic safety precautions, privacy should be a building block of every flight plan and every unmanned aircraft system operation.

To advance these goals, and pursuant to the Presidential Memorandum, Promoting Economic Competitiveness While Safeguarding Privacy, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties in Domestic Use of Unmanned Aircraft Systems, the Administration has taken important steps forward:

  • Instituted strong Federal standards: The Departments of Defense, the Interior, Justice, and Transportation, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) have instituted unmanned aircraft systems privacy policies. These policies help guide Federal agencies in their use of unmanned aircraft to carry out agency missions while respecting the privacy of the American people. These policies also generally require Federal contractors to adhere to the same privacy standards as the agencies themselves, helping promote strong standards in the marketplace.
  • Developed industry-consensus best practices for protecting privacy: To promote similarly strong standards in the private sector, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) has worked with privacy advocates and industry to develop recommended best practices for unmanned aircraft privacy, transparency, and accountability, which NTIA published last month. These best practices are supported by some of the largest companies in the unmanned aircraft industry, including Amazon and Google X, industry associations including Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International and the Commercial Drone Alliance, and civil advocates like the Center for Democracy and Technology and the Future of Privacy Forum. The Obama Administration encourages all drone operators and companies to review the best practices and to determine whether and how to apply the practices to their own unmanned aircraft operations.

Today, in connection with the release of the new rule, the Administration is taking additional steps to enhance privacy protections:

  • Launching a public education campaign on privacy: The Federal Aviation Administration is launching a campaign to educate pilots and citizens on drone privacy, including providing all unmanned aircraft users with recommended privacy guidelines as part of the unmanned aircraft systems registration process and through the FAA’s B4UFly mobile app; educating all commercial drone pilots on privacy during their pilot certification process; and issuing new guidance to local and state governments on drone privacy issues.
  • Issuing a call for commitments to protect privacy: New technologies and business practices can also help protect privacy. Today, the Administration is putting out a call for private sector and nonprofit organizations to share commitments for new technologies or business practices that will protect privacy during drone operations. This call builds on actions already taken by industry. For example, one drone manufacturer is releasing a new tool that allows remote operators to create a map of where they want to fly and only captures images in that area, allowing operators to prevent the accidental collection of sensitive data. To take a second example, an unmanned aircraft software provider is integrating privacy considerations into software design by creating a pre-flight privacy checklist.

Deploying Unmanned Aircraft for Public Safety, Research, and the Environment

Unmanned aircraft systems are transforming the ability of local, state, and Federal agencies to carry out their missions, including in emergency assistance and disaster response, where they have been deployed by international emergency response teams in mudslides, wildfires, hurricanes, structural collapses, nuclear accidents, tsunamis, and more. They also improve our capability to conduct research, monitor wildlife, protect sensitive ecosystems, and manage and monitor the environment.

These tools are already being put to work by the Federal Government across a broad spectrum of application areas. Today, Federal agencies are announcing new steps to integrate unmanned aircraft systems into the National Airspace System, and to deploy these systems to protect public safety and advance scientific research:

  • Fighting wildfires and protecting the environment through the Department of the Interior (DOI): DOI, which manages one-fifth of all land in the United States, has used unmanned aircraft systems since 2009, employing unmanned aircraft systems to conduct wildlife and vegetation surveys to protect endangered populations, archeological studies, emergency response, and wildfire management, where drones have expanded DOI’s capability to suppress fires to 24 hours a day. DOI is committing to:
  • Make high-definition remote sensing capability via unmanned aircraft systems available to all nine of its bureaus by 2018 to support department missions: This technology, which can provide a 500-fold increase in resolution over traditional aerial imagery, will provide affordable high resolution data and assist with many critical missions, including invasive plant and animal detection, search and rescue, wildland firefighting, flood management, earthquake forecasting, volcano research, and oil spill response.
  • Finalize protocols to deploy drones to detect, assess, and attack wildfires; position crews; and enhance firefighter safety by Spring 2018. No later than 2020, the Department also will equip all DOI firefighting teams with unmanned aircraft systems necessary to successfully perform these missions as part of their toolkit for fighting fires.
  • Have in place procedures for the rapid deployment of unmanned aircraft for emergency response anywhere in the country by 2020.
  • Understanding and predicting changes in climate, weather, oceans, and coastal areas through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA): NOAA has made significant strides since 2008 in deploying unmanned aircraft systems to improve or enhance weather, climate, and coastal and oceanic observations. Today, NOAA is announcing that it:
  • Commits to finalize operations, training, safety, and data management plans by 2019 for small unmanned aircraft systems to be used in the agency’s routine operations, increasing NOAA’s capacity to work with other government agencies and stakeholders to develop rapid response imagery of storm damage, river flood conditions, marine wildlife and ecosystem environments, and sudden changes to polar sea ice fields, as well as oil and chemical spills impacting coasts, marshlands, and marine sanctuaries.
  • Is partnering with NASA, the U.S. Navy, the National Science Foundation, and other entities conducting a comprehensive assessment of unmanned aircraft observations for the improvement of weather forecasts of high-impact storms, such as hurricanes. This work could improve our ability to forecast weather, and predict and minimize the damage done by hurricanes, tornadoes, and other extreme weather events, saving lives, property, and taxpayer dollars.
  • Developing air traffic management for low-altitude unmanned aircraft: NASA and FAA are announcing the formation of a new research collaboration, called a Research Transition Team, to identify requirements to implement large-scale unmanned aircraft system operations in low-altitude airspace. This work will focus on research to support the development of Unmanned Aircraft System Traffic Management by providing remote pilots with information needed to maintain separation from other aircraft and to make unmanned aircraft traffic safe and efficient through proper integration with the FAA's Air Traffic Management system. In 2016, NASA will conduct tests involving multiple unmanned aircraft systems operations beyond visual line of sight to define and refine these requirements, which will help inform future regulatory actions and, eventually, help achieve full airspace integration of unmanned aircraft systems.
  • Engaging the government and the public on the future of unmanned aircraft: The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy today announces that it will host an event with government, academic, and industry stakeholders at the White House later this year, focused on the potential of drones to enable high-impact research, create new jobs and industries, save lives, and improve the way government agencies and companies do business; and on potential actions to further address safety, security, and privacy in this emerging field. Tell the Administration more about what your organization is doing to support positive applications of unmanned aircraft systems technology and best practices around privacy protections here