Feds to ease restrictions on commercial drone flights within the US
This undated handout photo released by Amazon on Dec. 1, 2013 shows a flying 'octocopter' mini-drone [AFP]

U.S. aviation regulators are preparing to ease commercial restrictions on small drones under a draft rule to be released Sunday, according to regulators and a government analysis that leaked over the weekend.

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration and U.S. Department of Transportation said late Saturday that they had scheduled a news conference for 10 a.m. ET Sunday to release the draft rule. It governs drones weighing 55 pounds or less and has been nearly 10 years in the making.

The unusual weekend release was scheduled after an economic analysis of regulation was inadvertently published on a government website.

The 79-page analysis, dated February 2015, suggests the FAA favors making it easier for farmers, photographers and other businesses to fly drones to survey crops, shoot videos and inspect remote facilities, such as oil pipelines, drilling rigs and electrical power towers, among other uses.

The analysis was not a copy of the draft rule itself, and it was not immediately clear whether it reflected current FAA thinking. FAA officials were not available for comment late Saturday.

The draft FAA rule to be released Sunday will kick off a lengthy comment period that could substantially change the final rule.

Still, the analysis suggests the FAA is leaning toward more business-friendly regulations as it integrates drones into the national airspace.

Business have chafed at the FAA's de facto ban on commercial flights by drones, also known as small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), saying it holds back a multibillion-dollar industry and puts people at risk flying missions that could be handled safely by small, remotely piloted aircraft that have become increasingly capable and inexpensive.

"If the proposed rule would avert only one fatality by using a small UAS instead of a tower climber, then the $9.2 million dollar cost of an averted fatality would exceed the costs of this proposed rule," the analysis says.

The FAA has so far granted about a dozen exemptions on a case-by-case basis after petitions by individual businesses.

At the same time, the agency has highlighted the risks posed by small unmanned aircraft, which have been seen over crowded stadiums and straying into the flight paths of planes landing at airports.

"This proposed rule would create an enabling business environment," the analysis says. The FAA rule also would enhance safety by using unmanned aircraft in place of manned aircraft in dangerous situations.

(Reporting by Alwyn Scott; Editing by Kim Coghill)