New FAA rules let drones to take flight, within limits

New rules from the Federal Aviation Administration loosen restrictions on commercial use of drones but don’t go as far as allowing drone delivery services like those proposed by Amazon and Google.

In the much awaited rules published Tuesday, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) set limits on the commercial use of drones, addressing issues of speed, altitude and weight. But the issue getting the most attention is the one requiring any unmanned aircraft to be within sight of its operator or a spotter.

What’s in a rule
When the rules go into effect next month, the roughly 7,000 companies awaiting approval to use drones for inspecting crops, search and rescue, aerial photography and other business needs, will be able to do so as long as the drones are kept in sight by its operators.

Unlike the U.S. National Telecommunications and Information Administration's (NTIA) best practice guidelines on the use of drone, the FAA’s rules provide defined requirements for use. These rules give the green light on commercial use of drones as long as the drone and its payload weighed less than 55lbs/25kilos; flies during daylight and 30 minutes before sunrise and 30 minutes after sunset; keeps speed under 100 mph/161 kph; does not fly above 400ft/122m; and has its own operating pilot in line of sight who’s required to pass an operator test every two years.

That final requirement is the catch for the use of drones for e-commerce package delivery. After all, why bother using drones for package deliveries when they have to be individually piloted and you’re close enough to see the drone deliver the package? The operator may as well put down the drone and take the package to the door themselves. That would at least save businesses the cost of buying a drone to begin with.

Businesses raise concerns
As was anticipated, Amazon took particular issue with the requirement to have one operator with line-of-sight access for each drone. “Amazon asserted that the proposed restriction is based on the flawed premises that small UAS (unmanned aircraft systems) must be operated under constant manual control,” the FAA’s filing said. Amazon also goes on to say that the proposed provision should be revised to specifically permit the operation of multiple small UAS by a single operator.”

Meanwhile, Google argued for the ability to “present a safety case” for instances where they want to be able to fly drones over “non-participants”.

More to come
The FAA acknowledges that it lacks data on the safety of flying drones outside the operator’s line-of-sight and the have allowed for operators to apply for a waiver on a case-by-case basis. That means Amazon will have to hold off on Prime Air orders by drone.

But it may not have to wait for long. Experts predict that once the FAA is comfortable with the technology it will give companies more room to use drones over long distances.

In fact, FAA administrators said the new rules are "just our first step. We’re already working on additional rules that will expand the range of operations."

Tags: Technology, Logistics, Regulatory environment, Drones

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