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White House Ramps Up Federal Drone Programs

A drone aircraft wi, ... ]

A drone aircraft wi, ... ] // Mel Evans/AP

The White House this week reaffirmed its commitment to drone technology, announcing a host of new federal programs designed to increase government use.

Coinciding with an Office of Science and Technology workshop Tuesday on unmanned aerial systems, organizations including the Interior Department and the U.S. Postal Service both pledged to examine the role of drones in internal operations, such as in search and rescue missions or package delivery.

The Federal Aviation Administration plans to propose a rule in the winter about the operation of drones near crowds for uses such as videography or photography, according to a White House announcement. Earlier this summer, FAA published a "small drone" rule that would allow nonrecreational drones weighing less than 55 lbs to be used for "commercial, scientific, public and educational purposes," as long as they comply with operational and safety requirements.

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Interior has been using drones since 2009 for wildlife and vegetation surveys but plans to apply them to search and rescue missions by October 2018. By fiscal 2019, Interior plans to have procedures in place for rapidly processing drone data in the cloud instead of sending it back to a local office. This could help the department share data about wildfire locations in close to real time, among other applications.

The Postal Service's Office of the Inspector General also plans to publish an analysis of public opinion on drone delivery and the most and least compelling use cases, according to the White House.

The White House also announced a $35 million fund at the National Science Foundation that, over the next five years, would fund research into drone monitoring, agricultural uses and the physical infrastructure required to expand their applications.

Last year, President Barack Obama issued a memorandum emphasizing that agencies should think about the potential harm widespread drone use might pose to individual privacy.

Before deploying drones, and at least every three years, agencies should revisit their policies on "collection, use, retention and dissemination of information obtained by" the unmanned systems to make sure "privacy, civil rights and civil liberties are protected,” that document said. Drones should only collect information "consistent with and relevant to an authorized purpose, and "provide notice to the public" about where their drones are operating, according to that memorandum.

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