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This government rule could cripple commercial drone flight

Dont' have a pilot license? Don't think about it. Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg

One of America's most popular consumer drones, the DJI Phantom 2, is surprisingly cheap, lightweight and easy to fly, and lots of wedding photographers, farmers and real estate agents now depend on it for eyes in the sky.

But federal rules could soon require that, before flying their three-pound whirlybirds, they'll first need pilot licenses -- certification that can cost $10,000 and demand many hours flying aircraft that control nothing like a little drone.

The proposed Federal Aviation Administration rules, first reported by the Wall Street Journal, could add a big new burden onto the first generation of small businesses using drones to cheaply shoot video, map land or monitor crops.

"It costs a lot of money to get a pilot license and to maintain it, and that's not necessarily a cost that can be passed along to the customer," said Brendan Schulman, head of commercial drone law at Kramer Levin in New York. "It's a real threat to a lot of small businesses, but also the industry as a whole."

But analysts said it could also affect giants from Hollywood to, whose splashy proposal of drone package delivery could be scuttled by other FAA proposals, including bans on flying drones at night, above 400 feet or outside of the pilot's line of sight. Amazon declined to comment.

The rules, drone experts said, could potentially crush a high-tech, wide-ranging industry still in its infancy. In a survey of drone-related business owners, Colin Snow, the founder of Drone Analyst, said the market for small drones "would basically die" if regulators demanded rules like pilot licensing.

That's a shame, enthusiasts said, because the industry could really use some oversight: cheap drones can now be seen buzzing sports stadiums, flying too closely to airport runways and hovering over groups of elementary-school kids during picture day.

The most popular drones in business aren't military-grade. They're battery-powered, often equipped with cameras and control a lot like model aircraft. Photographers have used them to capture weddings, mansions and snowdrifts in Buffalo. Utilities have used them to survey pipelines, and volunteer search-and-rescue teams have launched them to scout for missing people.

That's partly because it's never been easier to fly a consumer drone like the Phantom 2, which you can buy equipped with a high-definition camera for about $900. The quadcopter hovers in place if you don't touch its remote joysticks and will return home if it steers too far off course. That's partly why drone enthusiasts are so confused by licensing rules that would link them to manned, gigantic, gas-fueled aircraft.

"Knowing the proper flap setting on a short runway approach for a Cessna 172 doesn't do any good for a DJI Phantom," said Matt Waite, a University of Nebraska professor and founder of the Drone Journalism Lab. "A lot of people out there already running businesses in conflict with FAA policy, who don't have pilot licenses, are probably looking at this like, 'You've got to be kidding me.'"

Federal rules today allow drone flights for fun but largely ban commercial use. In the FAA's half-dozen exemptions of that rule, all of them for filmmakers, they have required operators have private pilot licenses before launching their drones.

An FAA spokesman would not discuss specifics of the rules but said he expected they "would at least make a start toward expanded commercial use of unmanned aircraft." But the early proposals of FAA policy appear so demanding, enthusiasts said, they run the risk of convincing people to simply ignore the rules.

"This is an industry that's begging to be regulated," said Mickey H. Osterreicher, general counsel for the National Press Photographers Association. But "we’re going to end up back where we were. The regulations will be so onerous that everyone will just ignore them, and keep doing what they're doing now, and saying, 'Catch us if you can.'"

The FAA could announce its potential rules by next month, and it could take more than a year for final regulations to go into effect. That means new rules won't directly stymie shoppers looking for drones on holiday wish lists. DJI, based in China, doesn't share revenue figures, but a company spokesman said revenue has grown 3 to 5 times every year since 2009.

But enthusiasts worry the rules could have a chilling effect on small-business drone users, who don't want or can't afford a pilot license, and who might worry what other rules might be up in the air.

"I know several people who had burgeoning businesses and said, 'No, I'm worried about what the feds will do to me,' and pulled out," said Gene Robinson, a longtime pilot and the director of air operations for searches at Texas EquuSearch, a nonprofit that has used drones to look for missing people. "It's unfortunate, because a lot of innovation comes from garage-shop tinkerers and guys out there just testing stuff out."

Disclosure: Amazon founder and chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.