Feds approve 1,000 applications for drone flights

Feds approve 1,000 applications for drone flights
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The Federal Aviation Administration has approved 1,000 applications for nonmilitary drone flights. 

The exemptions were granted this week under a section of federal law that allows the Transportation Department to wave requirements for FAA approval for drone flights that are operated outside of restricted airspace and below 200 feet. 

The FAA said in a statement that the exemptions were part of a "continuing effort to safely expand and support commercial unmanned aircraft operations in U.S. airspace." 

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"Companies and individuals from a broad spectrum of industries are taking advantage of the Section 333 exemption process," the agency said.  

"Many of the grants the FAA has issued allow aerial filming for uses such as motion picture production, precision agriculture and real estate photography," the FAA statement continued. "The agency also has issued grants for new and novel approaches to inspecting power distribution towers and wiring, railroad infrastructure and bridges." 

The FAA is in the process of developing regulations for allowing a rapid expansion of the use of commercial drones in the U.S.

The agency has faced tremendous pressure to approve such an expansion of nonmilitary drone use from companies such as Amazon, who have said the technology can be used to make speedier online deliveries. 

Police and other law enforcement groups were also seeking approval to use the technology, and the FAA has investigated several drone incidents that occurred in conjunction with photography at college and professional sporting events.

The section of law that allows the FAA to grant drone exemptions gives the Transportation Department the authority to drop a requirement that operators of the technology apply for a certificate of airworthiness that is normally required for flights that are formally considered an aircraft. 

The definition of drones as aircraft under the FAA's proposed rules has riled recreational operators of the devices who consider themselves hobbyists instead of pilots. 

The FAA’s rules define small drones as devices that weigh less than 55 pounds and require them to be operated at heights that are less than 500 feet and speeds that are less than 100 miles per hour.

The regulations also call for drone flights to be limited to daytime hours and conducted only by U.S. residents who are older than 17. Drone operators are also prohibited under the FAA proposal from conducting flights that take the devices out of their line of vision — a big blow to companies like Amazon that have touted the possibility of using the technology to conduct deliveries. 

The rules make drone operators responsible for avoiding collisions with manned aircraft that are in the same airspace as the devices, and prohibit drone flights that “fly over people, except those directly involved with the flight.”

The FAA said this week that it has streamlined the exemption process for the drone rules "to make it easier for operators to access the nation’s airspace.

"In March, the agency began issuing 'blanket' Certificates of Waiver or Authorization (COAs) to Section 333 exemption holders," the agency said. 

"This COA allows flights anywhere in the country at or below 200 feet except in restricted airspace, close to airports, and other areas, such as major cities where the FAA prohibits UAS operations," the FAA continued. "Previously, an operator had to apply for and receive a COA for a particular block of airspace, a process that can take as long as 60 days."