"We have tried to be flexible in writing these rules," FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said in a press release. "We want to maintain today's outstanding level of aviation safety without placing an undue regulatory burden on an emerging industry."
The public can comment on the proposed rules for 60 days, and the FAA plans to hold meetings to discuss the proposal before it's implemented.
"This proposed rule is a critical milestone in the UAS integration process, and one that is long overdue," said Brian Wynne, president of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, a prominent drone lobby. "UAS technology has largely remained grounded while many prospective users wait for the regulatory framework to catch up."
UAS, which stands for "unmanned aircraft systems," is another term for drones.
Existing restrictions on commercial drone flights remain in place until the rules are finalized. That means commercial drone flights are still banned, except for a handful of organizations that applied for and received special exemptions from the FAA.
Only 28 companies have received permission to fly drones for uses as varied as industrial inspections, filming over closed movie sets, and even newsgathering.
Also on Sunday, President Obama sent a presidential memo to the heads of all federal agencies, ordering them to draw up and publish policies for drone use within a year. The memo outlined privacy and accountability protections that agencies would have to take into account as they create their policies.
The memo also ordered the Commerce Department to begin working on rules concerning "privacy, accountability, and transparency" for private and commercial drone users. The FAA regulations proposed Sunday only address safety.
Access, a nonprofit organization that focuses on technology and human rights issues, wrote in a blog post that "it is not yet clear that the rules will adequately account for the potential harms or benefits of commercial drone use. It will be critical for the multistakeholder process to be truly open and incorporative for the development of rights-respectful drone rules."
Sen. Edward Markey, an outspoken privacy advocate, said the FAA and White House did not go far enough with their rules. "While this proposal is a step towards ensuring Americans' safety and security are protected as drones take to the skies, it stops short of ensuring that the strongest safeguards are in place to protect privacy and promote transparency," the senator said in a statement.
Markey said he would reintroduce legislation that would make sure drones "cannot and will not be used to spy on Americans."
The American Civil Liberties Union echoed Markey's concerns in a Sunday statement. "This proposal is an important step in restricting how the government uses this powerful surveillance technology, but falls short of fully protecting the privacy of Americans," said Neema Singh Guliani, a legislative counsel with ACLU's Washington office. "For example, the proposal allows the use of data gathered by domestic drones for any 'authorized purpose,' which is not defined, leaving the door open to inappropriate drone use by federal agencies."