FAA panel unveils proposals for flying drones over crowds

FAA panel unveils proposals for flying drones over crowds
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A Federal Aviation Administration panel on Wednesday unveiled highly anticipated safety recommendations for flying small commercial drones over crowds, setting the stage for final regulations on the issue.

The Micro Unmanned Aircraft Systems Aviation Rulemaking Committee suggests that micro drones weighing less than a half pound can fly over crowds with very limited restrictions because they have a less than a 1 percent chance of causing serious injuries.

Drones over half a pound but under 55 pounds would need to fly at least 20 feet above people’s heads and keep at least 10 feet away from them laterally. Unmanned aircraft system (UAS) operators would also have to verify that their products pose a less than 1 percent chance of injury, based on the results of crash tests with dummies.

More stringent standards would apply to flying over restricted areas, such as construction sites, movie sets or agriculture fields. But the committee’s report suggests that drone operators could receive an exemption if they develop an acceptable risk mitigation plan.

The panel also recommends making it easier for operators of smaller crafts to receive education about flying through an online test, expressing concern that people wouldn’t go to an FAA test site or submit to Transportation Security Administration background checks.

“Putting onerous burdens on folks who are flying the smallest category could actually be a deterrent from safety,” said Nancy Egan, committee co-chair and general counsel for drone firm 3D Robotics. “Making it easier for those folks to get the education that we want them to have actually enhances safety.”

The FAA said it is reviewing the report from the committee, which includes industry representatives and other aviation stakeholders. Currently, the FAA prohibits most commercial drone flights over populated areas.

“It’s real focus is flight over people. The parades, flying in the park,” said Earl Lawrence, co-chair of the panel and director of the FAA’s UAS Integration Office. “This is about what are the additional requirements that should be imposed for a small UAS to be operated over an individual who is not a participating individual.”

The recommendations could serve as the basis for forthcoming rules, with the FAA expected to issue a notice of proposed rulemaking on the topic. Lawrence said the agency has not laid out a timetable for the proposal but said “it will definitely not be in the next few months.”

Some drone advocacy groups, which have been anxiously waiting to see what federal drone policy will look like, have applauded the latest effort. But others remain concerned about the public perception of allowing commercial drones to fly over people.

“We are concerned that allowing some unmanned aircraft to operate over and within close proximity to people will heighten the anxiety of a society that is already hypersensitive to the introduction of drones into our communities,” said Dave Mathewson, executive director of the Academy of Model Aeronautics, a member on the committee. “Regardless, we look forward to working with the ARC members and the broader UAS community to ensure the safe and responsible use of model aircraft, consumer drones, and commercial UAS.”