Thousands of remotely piloted aircraft of various shapes, sizes and speeds — at least some carrying high-resolution cameras and sophisticated sensors — may soon be buzzing overhead.

FAA officials have long worried that ground-based pilots of drone aircraft can’t always see or avoid commercial and other aircraft. And civil liberties groups warn that Americans could face unprecedented surveillance from above in violation of privacy rights.

But members of Congress, backed by drone manufacturers, inserted language in the FAA reauthorization bill that requires the agency to move swiftly to license drones. The new rules are supposed to help determine who can fly a drone — and how high and far — without posing a threat.

Advocates say the unmanned planes could be deployed for uses as diverse as dusting crops, selling real estate, giving real-time traffic reports and helping with disaster relief. Some can stay aloft at a fraction of the cost of helicopters and manned aircraft.

Next month’s set of FAA rules will apply only to police and other first-responder drones smaller than 4.4 pounds that are flown in daylight below 400 feet, and that stay within a pilot’s line of sight. They resemble large model planes.
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