WASHINGTON (AP) – Feb. 16, 2015 – The government proposed long-awaited rules Sunday to usher in an era of commercial drones zipping through U.S. skies, but packages from these unmanned aircraft won't be landing on doorsteps any time soon.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) proposed requirements that commercial operators must meet, such as passing a knowledge test administered by the agency as well as a federal security check, in order to fly small drones, defined as weighing less than 55 pounds (25 kilograms). It is likely to be two or three years before the rules are made final, but federal officials said that once they are in place, the economic and safety benefits of unmanned aircraft are expected to be enormous.

Among the chores that officials envision drones performing: Aerial photography and mapping, crop monitoring, and inspections of cell towers, bridges and other tall structures. But the proposal includes safety restrictions such as keeping drones within sight of operators at all times and no nighttime flights. That could mean no package or pizza deliveries by drone. Drones would also have to stay at least 5 miles (8 kilometers) away from an airport.

Flights over people except those involved in the drone's operation would be prohibited.

They could travel as fast as 100 mph (160 kph), but flights would be limited to 500 feet (150 meters) in altitude or below. Flights over crowds would also be prohibited.

"We have tried to be flexible in writing these rules," said FAA Administrator Michael Huerta. "We want to maintain today's outstanding level of aviation safety without placing an undue regulatory burden on an emerging industry."

The agency is researching technology that he hopes will eventually enable small drones to fly safely beyond the sight of operators, Huerta said. He emphasized that introduction of commercial drones into the national airspace will be a staged process. The government is also looking ahead to how larger drones might be allowed to fly in airspace shared by manned aircraft, for example, he said.

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