The Federal Aviation Administration weighed in on the increasing civilian use of autonomous drones on Thursday. The government agency released a report outlining a roadmap for certain cases in which unmanned drones could be permissible.
In the report (pdf), with the lengthy title "Integration of Civil Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) in the National Airspace System Roadmap," the FAA said that autonomous drones are already being used in disaster response, cargo transport, aerial mapping, and commercial photography. While drones are already buzzing around, the FAA is cautious with allowing wholesale use of the flying machines.
Unmanned drones bring up the sticky issue of privacy. These self-flying vehicles can swoop over vast areas gathering information on unsuspecting people. Even Google's executive chairman has cautioned legalizing drone use, saying they could infringe on people's privacy and that they should be regulated.
However, drones can also be very useful for civilians. For instance, farmers can use them to monitor their crops, hunters could use them to stake out deer, and earth scientists could use them for gathering data and research.
For now, all unmanned drones bigger than a small shoebox sized apparatus are still prohibited. For those smaller drones that are allowed -- they must stay within a person's view. The FAA wrote that it will prioritize research on the use of self-flying vehicles. Additionally, it will launch six drone test sites by the end of this year.
These test sites are "not intended to predetermine the long-term policy and regulatory framework under which UAS would operate," the FAA wrote. But they will "help inform the dialogue."
Most likely, the government won't take action on legalizing or prohibiting drones further until 2016.