FAA Places Restrictions on Drones During Pope's U.S. Visit

Unmanned aircraft, including drones and model planes, have even tighter flight restrictions during the pope's U.S. visit.

Pope Francis, drones, FAA, drone flights, B4UFLY app, unmanned aircraft systems, Pope's visit

The Federal Aviation Administration has banned the flights of unmanned aircraft in and around Washington, D.C., New York City and Philadelphia, the sites of the U.S. visit of Pope Francis through Sept. 27. In addition, the agency has placed temporary flight restrictions on manned aircraft flights in the areas for the pope's visits.

The FAA announced the restrictions Sept. 21 as part of its security rules for the pope's visits to the United States.

The agency also posted a video on YouTube that describes the tighter security measures, which apply to all unmanned aircraft, including radio-controlled model aircraft and drones (pictured).

"The Federal Aviation Association wants you to know that the cities of Washington, D.C., New York and Philadelphia are no drone zones during the papal visit from Sept. 22 through [Sept.] 27," the video states. "The FAA has flight restrictions in place in and around all three cities. Flying a drone in the areas Pope Francis visits is against the law, and violators could face stiff fines and criminal penalties. Enjoy the papal visit and leave your drone at home. "

The airspace around Washington, D.C., where the pope's first stop in the U.S. is scheduled, is more restricted than in any other part of the country, according to the FAA. "A prohibition against flying any type of unmanned aircraft without specific approval exists around the District of Columbia, cities, towns, and airports. The FAA temporarily has expanded restrictions for all aircraft, including drones, to include Potomac Airfield, College Park, and Washington Executive/Hyde Park airports."

Pope Francis arrived in Washington on Sept. 22 and will visit through Sept. 24, when he will travel to New York City. In New York, he will attend a prayer service in St. Patrick's Cathedral and speak before the United Nations General Assembly, while also visiting Ground Zero, stopping in at Our Lady Queen of Angels Elementary School in East Harlem and attending an evening Mass at Madison Square Garden. On Sept. 26 and 27, he will be in Philadelphia where he will hold a morning Mass at the Cathedral Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul, speak at Independence Mall and then participate in a motorcade on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, as well as make other stops.

The FAA has been working in recent months to develop rules and procedures for the commercial use of drones in the U.S. In June, an FAA spokesman said the agency is working to have drone regulations in place by mid-2016. The regulations will govern drone flights and keep them safely away from commercial and private aircraft traffic as well as pedestrians and other hazards on the ground. Some 1,600 businesses fly drones under FAA exemptions today while complete rules are put together.

A wide range of businesses, from e-retailer Amazon to agricultural businesses, photographers, energy production companies, news operations and others have been clamoring for the ability to use drones for several years, but have been prevented from doing so until the FAA implements regulations to ensure their safe operation. The companies have been arguing that delays in implementing drone rules in the United States have kept businesses from benefiting from cost savings and new revenue from their use.

In August, the FAA announced a new beta B4UFLY mobile app that offers to help drone pilots ensure safe flight paths for their unmanned aircraft systems (UAS). B4UFLY is a free app that is being offered for beta testing by up to 1,000 UAS users, including drone pilots and model aircraft hobbyists, to provide up-to-date information on hazards and restrictions in the area where they fly their drones or model planes.

The first beta version of the app is only for Apple iOS users, and the testing is expected to run for several months, after which the FAA plans to make a final version of B4UFLY available for the general public. A version of B4UFLY for Android is slated for release in the future. The app provides a clear "status" indicator that immediately informs operators about their current or planned location, information on the parameters that provide that status indicator and a planner mode for future flights in different locations. The app also includes informative, interactive maps with filtering options and links to other FAA UAS resources and regulatory information, according to the agency.

In July, Amazon proposed the use of specific sections of U.S. airspace for drone flights so that it could push forward with its plans to provide package delivery flights across the United States, eWEEK reported at the time. Amazon's idea is to designate airspace below 200 feet for drones that do surveying or inspections or take videos, while reserving airspace between 200 to 400 feet for delivery drones that are making their way over communities. Such a system would then connect drones as they are operating to an online network that would manage their flights in real time to keep them from harm's way. The airspace between 200 and 400 feet would allow drones to be flown autonomously, while being equipped with sophisticated sense-and-avoid technologies.

Amazon has been looking at drone deliveries as a way of offering faster service to customers while also saving money, compared with the more costly human-based delivery systems.