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The FAA's upcoming commercial drone rules could be brutally restrictive

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The Federal Aviation Administration's forthcoming drone rules might require all operators to have a license and limit flights to daylight hours, according to a new report in The Wall Street Journal, which cites sources familiar with the rule-making process. The report says that licenses "likely to be proposed" would be comparable to traditional pilot's licenses, requiring dozens of hours in the cockpit of a manned aircraft. The Journal also expects the new rules to limit flights to under 400 feet and within sight of the person at the controls.

A drone license might require dozens of hours flying a manned aircraft

The official rules have yet to be released, and it's possible the final version will be more lenient or will be softened over time. Still, the Journal report indicates that the FAA may take a much heavier hand towards commercial drone regulation than anyone had anticipated. The proposed rules would severely limit the potential uses of drone technology, potentially causing real problems for the ambitious automated drone-delivery scheme put forward by Amazon. It would also apply the same rules to any commercial drone under 55 pounds, providing no exception for the featherweight drones that many hoped would be exempt from federal rules.

As it stands now, drone usage is in a state of legal limbo, leading to confusing and potentially dangerous uncertainty in appropriate use. The FAA has faced delays in implementing new rules for the crafts, in part because of the federal government shutdown earlier this year, but has promised to announce a set of rules allowing for small-drone flights before the end of the year. That leaves just a few weeks left before the FAA's new plan is made public — and if the Journal's reporting holds up, it might be a bad day for businesses with business plans involving drones.

11/24 10:48am ET: Updated to clarify that FAA rules apply only to commercial use