The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has to open U.S. airspace to unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) by Sept. 30, 2015, according to legislation signed by President Barack Obama on Feb. 14, 2012.
The FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 (PL 112-96) includes Section 332, which details the “integration of civil unmanned aircraft systems into [the] national airspace system.” The act enables UAVs to fly beyond the restricted airspace zones controlled by the U.S. military to which those drones are limited.
While the deadline for opening up U.S. airspace to UAVs is in 2015, police, firefighters and other civilian first-response agencies can start flying UAVs weighing no more than 4.4 pounds 90 days after the bill was signed into law. However, those agencies would have to meet still-to-be-determined requirements for UAV use, such as having an operator on the ground within line-of-sight of the drone and flying it at least 400 feet above ground.
The next milestone for increased UAV use is scheduled for May 2013 when the next class of drones, those weighing less than 55 pounds, will be allowed to fly over U.S. airspace.
However, while the act allows UAVs to fly over U.S. airspace, rules about where and when drones can fly and who can operate them are still under development. In addition, technical challenges, such as establishing a bandwidth for secure UAV radio communications and refining collision avoidance systems, still have to be determined.