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FAA advisor in Pittsburgh says agency might limit max speed, altitude of drones

| Friday, June 3, 2016, 1:12 p.m.
Marke Gibson, senior advisor on unmanned aircraft systems integration for the FAA speaks Friday June 3, 2016 during a symposium titled, Reaching New Heights: An Overview of the Unmanned Aircraft Atmosphere for 2016 sponsored by the K&L Gates Consumer Technology Association and held at their downtown Pittsburgh offices.
James Knox | Tribune-Review
Marke Gibson, senior advisor on unmanned aircraft systems integration for the FAA speaks Friday June 3, 2016 during a symposium titled, Reaching New Heights: An Overview of the Unmanned Aircraft Atmosphere for 2016 sponsored by the K&L Gates Consumer Technology Association and held at their downtown Pittsburgh offices.
Marke Gibson, senior advisor on unmanned aircraft systems integration for the FAA speaks Friday June 3, 2016 during a symposium titled, Reaching New Heights: An Overview of the Unmanned Aircraft Atmosphere for 2016 sponsored by the K&L Gates Consumer Technology Association and held at their downtown Pittsburgh offices.
James Knox | Tribune-Review
Marke Gibson, senior advisor on unmanned aircraft systems integration for the FAA speaks Friday June 3, 2016 during a symposium titled, Reaching New Heights: An Overview of the Unmanned Aircraft Atmosphere for 2016 sponsored by the K&L Gates Consumer Technology Association and held at their downtown Pittsburgh offices.
Marke Gibson, senior advisor on unmanned aircraft systems integration for the FAA speaks Friday June 3, 2016 during a symposium titled, Reaching New Heights: An Overview of the Unmanned Aircraft Atmosphere for 2016 sponsored by the K&L Gates Consumer Technology Association and held at their downtown Pittsburgh offices.
James Knox | Tribune-Review
Marke Gibson, senior advisor on unmanned aircraft systems integration for the FAA speaks Friday June 3, 2016 during a symposium titled, Reaching New Heights: An Overview of the Unmanned Aircraft Atmosphere for 2016 sponsored by the K&L Gates Consumer Technology Association and held at their downtown Pittsburgh offices.

Information poured into an unmanned helicopter's sensors as it approached a designated landing zone, only to find the area unsuitable for touchdown.

The drone, autonomously reacting to the world around it, quickly adjusted to find a better landing site and a safe path to approach the location through a tree line.

Video of the drone safely landing at the new site played across a screen behind Sanjiv Singh, a Carnegie Mellon Robotics Institute researcher and CEO of Bloomfield-based Near Earth Autonomy, as he addressed a seminar Friday in downtown Pittsburgh about the advances, opportunities and challenges surrounding unmanned aircraft.

The popularity of unmanned aircraft has skyrocketed in recent years, with more than 470,000 drone users registered with the federal government. But the industry's growth and popularity comes with insurance pitfalls, cybersecurity threats and often conflicting state and federal regulations.

The Federal Aviation Administration does not provide formal commercial drone use rules, but private owners and companies that want to operate unmanned aircraft for non-recreational purposes must obtain special permission from the agency.

That could soon change. Marke “Hoot” Gibson, FAA senior adviser on unmanned aircraft systems technology, said FAA officials could announce new small-drone commercial use rules within the next few weeks.

The rules, currently in draft form, will apply to unmanned aircraft that weigh less than 55 pounds. Final rules could include provisions that would limit drone flights to daytime hours, speeds of 100 mph or slower, and an altitude ceiling below 500 feet.

Singh said the next frontier in drone technology will revolve around low-flying, autonomously controlled vehicles.

“They'll have to go to places they haven't been to before, they'll have to react to things that they haven't seen before, and then make decisions in real time,” he said.

Such autonomy, looming on the technological horizon, is poised to complicate the patchwork of ethical, legal and regulatory challenges facing commercial drone use.

But it only further excited Maurice Moye, 31, as he watched Singh's presentation along with other industry experts at the seminar, hosted by international law firm K&L Gates and the Consumer Technology Association.

“I see so many places to grow with that,” said Moye, co-founder of a Carnegie-based start-up called Apiary Productions LLC that hopes to soon offer aerial drone video and photography services to clients.

Gibson called the advent of that technology “the most fundamental change in aviation in our lifetime.”

“We haven't seen this kind of thing since Orville and Wilbur (Wright) in terms of impact,” he said.

Lawmakers at the local level have weighed in on unmanned aircraft questions, too.

Pittsburgh City Council last fall banned drones and model aircraft in city parks. Plum Council members have approved an ordinance prohibiting the use of drones near the U.S. Open Championship June 13-19 at Oakmont Country Club.

Such actions often result from specific incidents, like last summer when a man outside PNC Park flew a drone over a packed Pirates game, creating a potential obstruction over the field of play.

Seminar speakers said one of the industry's greatest challenges remains the need to nurture commercial innovation and opportunity while maintaining safety and security.

Michael Walton is a Tribune-Review staff writer. He can be reached at 412-380-5627 or mwalton@tribweb.com.

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