Feds weigh relaxed rules for commercial drones

Feds weigh relaxed rules for commercial drones
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The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is taking steps toward loosening its rules for non-military drones after facing withering criticism from companies that hope to use the technology to make deliveries. 

FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said Wednesday that the agency is launching a “Pathfinder Program” that will test the possibility of allowing drones to fly beyond the line of vision of their operators. Restrictions prohibiting out-of-sight drones has been a major target of companies, like Amazon, that have touted the potential of using the technology to make faster deliveries. 

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“The unmanned aircraft industry is changing faster than any segment of the aviation industry. So many bright minds are focused on advancing this technology. People are finding new ways to use these devices on almost a daily basis,” Huerta said during a speech at a conference organized by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International in Atlanta. 

“Today, I’m pleased to announce a new project that will help the FAA harness some of this energy,” he said. “We’re partnering with three leading U.S. companies who have committed extensive resources to perform research that will help us determine if and how we can safely expand unmanned aircraft operations in the United States.” 

Huerta said the FAA will be partnering with three companies to test various aspects of drone use that go beyond the agency’s original proposal for the technology: CNN, to test “how visual line-of-sight operations might be used for newsgathering in urban areas;” PrecisionHawk, to examine “surveying crops in rural areas using unmanned aircraft flying outside of the pilot’s direct vision;” and BNSF Railway, to “explore the challenges of using these vehicles to inspect their rail infrastructure beyond visual line-of-sight in isolated areas.” 

The FAA’s original drone rules, unveiled in February, prohibited flights that would take the devices out of their operators’ line of vision.

The rules defined 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 called for drone flights to be limited to daytime hours and conducted only by U.S. residents who are older than 17. They also made drone operators responsible for avoiding collisions with manned aircraft that are in the same airspace as the devices, and they prohibit drone flights that “fly over people, except those directly involved with the flight.”

Amazon vocally opposed the limitations on out-of-sight drone flights, saying it would not be able to use the technology to deliver items to customers in the U.S. under FAA’s original proposal. 

“We disagree with the FAA’s belief that extending see-and-avoid principles to small UAS [unmanned aircraft systems], as well as the potential loss of positive control of small UAS, present ‘unique safety concerns’  — and, thereby, warrant delayed consideration,” the company said in comments that were formally submitted to the FAA last month. 

“Overly prescriptive restrictions are likely to have the unintended effect of stifling innovation and, over time, will fail to offer any corresponding safety benefit as small UAS technology evolves,” the Amazon comment continued.

Huerta said Wednesday that the Pathfinder Program would help the agency determine the feasibility of loosening the restrictions on commercial drone flights in the U.S. 

“We anticipate receiving valuable data from each of these trials that could result in FAA-approved operations in the next few years,” he said. “They will also give insight into how unmanned aircraft can be used to transform the way certain industries do business — whether that means making sure trains run on time, checking on the health of crops or reporting on a natural disaster.”