The Feds Just Made It Way Easier to Use Drones for Profit
Federal regulators just opened the skies to commercial drones, with guidelines that include more than a few caveats designed to encourage entrepreneurs while protecting everyone else.
The FAA, which announced the rules today, hopes to facilitate innovative uses for the technology like bringing the Internet to remote areas while avoiding the idiocy of drones interfering with firefighting operations or delivering contraband to prisons. “We are taking a careful and deliberate approach that balances the need to deploy this new technology with the FAA’s mission to protect public safety,” says FAA chief Michael Huerta.
The rules let anyone 16 or older who wants to make a business of flying a drone simply do so. In the past, pilots who hoped to make a buck with drones by, say, inspecting power lines, needed FAA permission, a process that could take months.
Still, the FAA has a few requirements. You must keep your drone within sight, which precludes autonomous package delivery. (Sorry, Amazon.) Your drone must weigh less than 55 pounds, stay below 400 feet, and be clearly marked so everyone can see it and know it’s yours. And you’ll have to pass a test administered by the FAA and re-qualify every 24 months.
The rules apply only to commercial use of drones, so you recreational pilots making drone selfies on vacation can keep doing what you do. But the FAA, and everyone else, asks that you please exhibit a modicum of common sense.
Drone pilots and their advocates hailed the FAA. “The rules are far, far better than expected,” says Peter Sachs, a lawyer and publisher of Drone Law Journal. He and others have a few nits to pick, but say the rules reduce the barrier to flight. Drone manufacturer DJI calls the new regs “a vote of confidence” in the technology. “We look forward to continuing to work with the FAA on more regulatory challenges ahead,” says spokesman Adam Lisberg.
Entrepreneurs see no end of opportunities for everything from surveying crops to delivering medical supplies to remote areas—something the California company Zipline already does in Rwanda. The line-of-sight requirement means Zipline and others looking to shake up delivery services remain hobbled, but CEO Keller Rinaudo believes the new rules will help him out anyway. Because the FAA won’t be tied up reviewing countless applications from commercial drone operators, it will have more time to consider unique cases like Zipline.
Not everyone is so excited by the FAA’s move. “I’ve been fighting the FAA for 13 years, I’m happy to see any progress forward,” says Missy Cummings, a former US Navy pilot, longtime proponent of drone regulation, and director of the Duke University Humans and Autonomy Laboratory.
But she wants the feds to look beyond package-slinging quadcopters to much larger drones, and to think about the American aviation system as a whole. “We need regulations that address 737- and 747-scale aircraft,” she says, since autonomous flight could benefit commercial aviation by curtailing emissions and fuel consumption. And “until we address how we’re going integrate them into an air traffic control system, these are just baby steps.”
NASA’s working on a drone and air-traffic management system, but Cummings says she’ll be shocked if anything like it is created during her professional lifetime.
Still, the FAA is moving forward, and walking a delicate line. The regulations might seem restrictive, but if they keep our skies safe without banning a promising technology, they’re likely a good thing.
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