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Intelligent Machines

New FAA Rules Have Commercial Drones Primed for Launch

The first set of rules for governing small autonomous flying vehicles will go into effect in August.

Small commercial drones will soon be free to take to the skies without getting special permission, as long as their operators follow new rules published Tuesday by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration.

Companies in multiple industries, including agriculture, mining, infrastructure maintenance, insurance, and retail stand to benefit by deploying drones. To date the FAA has given special permission on a case-by-case basis to use more than 5,000 commercial drones, but the new rules will truly open the skies.  

Specifically, the rules cover drones that weigh up to 55 pounds, stipulating among other things that in general the aircraft must stay below 400 feet, can only fly during daylight hours, must remain within sight of an operator or another person who is in communication with the operator, and cannot fly over people that are not directly involved in controlling it. Drone operators must be at least 16 years old and pass a new FAA-sanctioned certification test. But they cannot pilot or serve as the observer for more than one drone at a time. The rules now face a 60-day comment period, after which they will go into effect.

FAA administrator Michael Huerta

Much of what is in the final rules repeats a proposal the FAA published in February. But they include a few new wrinkles that have important implications for the industry, according to Jesse Kallman, director of business development and regulatory affairs at Airware, a company that develops systems for helping businesses fly and use drones. The rules allow flights around structures, which will open up new applications, for example in the insurance industry for things like rooftop inspection, says Kallman. They also allow flights above 400 feet if flying within 400 feet of a structure, which means that drones can now fly to the top of high cell towers for maintenance.  

Other new additions seem to apply directly to retailers, like Amazon, which are interested in using small drones to make deliveries. The rules allow for “external loads” and “transportation of property for compensation or hire” as long as the drone and its cargo don’t exceed the 55-pound limit. A company can also ask for a waiver that grants permission to fly drones at night, or even beyond what the operator can see.

But because technologies that would allow drones to automatically sense and avoid other objects, and for controlling drone traffic in congested areas, are still in development, the FAA is still playing it safe for now. The new drone rules are “just our first step,” FAA administrator Michael Huerta said in a statement. “We’re already working on additional rules that will expand the range of operations.”

(Read more: “Sorry, Shoppers: Delivery Drones Might Not Fly for a While,” “Why Rwanda Is Going to Get the World’s First Network of Delivery Drones,” “This Surveillance Drone Never Needs to Land”)

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FAA administrator Michael Huerta
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