The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has released a preliminary plan for integrating unmanned aircraft into US airspace by September 2015.
The FAA administrator Michael Huerta explained new rules, standards and policies were needed to make sure US aviation regulation and safety rules are ready for a growing number of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) expected to join the US airspace in the upcoming years.
"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 said.
The Aerospace Industries Association (AIA), an industry trade group, has been pressing the FAA to develop rules for allowing greater use of unmanned aircraft for civil uses such as firefighting, weather tracking and agriculture.
According to AIA President Marion Blakey 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.
"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," Blakey 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.
Over the next five years, an estimated 7,500 small unmanned craft could be operating in the US airspace provided appropriate regulations are put in place, Huerta said.
The FAA released three documents aimed at meeting a congressional deadline of September 2015 for integrating unmanned aircraft into the national airspace.
Huerta said the policy requires test site operators to comply with federal, state and other privacy laws; to prepare a written plan for use of any data gathered during testing; and to conduct an annual review of privacy practices.
Privacy advocates welcomed that emphasis, but urged further safeguards.
"It's crucial that as we move forward with drone use, those procedural protections are followed by concrete restrictions on how data from drones can be used and how long it can be stored," American Civil Liberties Union legislative counsel Christopher Calabrese said in a statement.