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Photographer Chase Jarvis with a drone at Gas Works Park in Seattle.
Photographer Chase Jarvis with a drone at Gas Works Park in Seattle.

What are the rules for letting a drone get in your face? Right now, there are no rules, but today the Federal Aviation Administration said it’s setting up a committee to come up with a proposal.

The announcement marks the latest step in the FAA’s effort to get a handle on the rapidly rising fleets of small drones, also known as unmanned aircraft systems or UAS. A year ago, regulators issued draft rules for the operation of commercial drones, like the ones Amazon is working on for package deliveries. Last December, the FAA set up a system for registering recreational drones. Now the FAA and industry representatives will be taking on one of the thornier questions relating to drones: How close can they get to the folks who aren’t operating them?

The newly announced aviation rulemaking committee is due to begin its work in March, and issue its final report to the FAA on April 1.

“The department continues to be bullish on new technology,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in the FAA’s news release. “We recognize the significant industry interest in expanding commercial access to the National Airspace System. The short deadline reinforces our commitment to a flexible regulatory approach that can accommodate innovation while maintaining today’s high levels of safety.”

The short deadline also meshes with the FAA’s plan to release a final version of the commercial rules by late spring.

Last year’s draft regulations generally ruled out flying drones over people, with two exceptions: It would be OK if the people in question were involved in operating the drone, or if the drone in question qualified as a “micro UAS.” A micro UAS was defined as a drone weighing no more than 4.4 pounds (2 kilograms), built so that it would do minimal damage to any person or object it happened to hit.

The FAA said commenters turned a strong thumbs-down on the micro UAS classification, and that’s why it decided to discuss the issue further with industry representatives and other stakeholders. The rulemaking committee is expected to suggest guidelines for deciding which types of drones can fly over innocent bystanders, based on performance standards rather than merely weight and speed of flight.

The committee will be co-chaired by Earl Lawrence, director of the FAA UAS Integration office; and Nancy Egan, general counsel for 3D Robotics. Lawrence was also a co-chair for the panel that came up with recommendations for the recreational drone registration system. Invitations to join the new panel have been sent out to more than two dozen industry and hobbyist groups, including GoogleX, GoPro, Intel and the National Association of Realtors. Amazon is not on the list, however.

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