If you want to operate your drone for commercial reasons in the US at the moment, there are considerable hoops you'll need to fly through first. But an announcement today from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is set to make this process more efficient, throwing a blanket approval over operators that meet a certain criteria.
Last year, the FAA began granting companies exemptions from rules outlawing commercial drone flight. Known as Section 333 exemptions, these permits give businesses the ability to use unmanned aircraft. But before they can take off, they also need to have the blocks of airspace they will be working in and their operations individually ticked off by the FAA. This can take up to 60 days.
Today's announcement simply removes this second step in the process, provided certain requirements are met. Operators who have been granted Section 333 exemptions are free to fly their vehicles anywhere in the US if they go no higher than 200 ft (61 m), only do so during daylight hours, keep the drones within line of sight of the pilots, and if they weigh less than 55 lb (24 kg). This of course excludes restricted airspace, such as airports, the White House and in major major cities where UAV flights are prohibited.
The FAA's intention here is to streamline the process and make it easier for businesses to benefit from the capabilities of drone technology, and is surely a sign of things to come. But progress is likely to remain slow until sweeping rules can be applied that integrate drones with national airspace and negate the need for a case-by-case evaluation of every applicant, a collective private interest that the FAA is trying to balance with public safety.
But the agency's prudence is not being received so well by all. At a senate hearing today, Amazon voiced its frustrations claiming that the US is at risk of being left behind in realizing the potential of drones. The company's vice president of Global Public Policy, Paul Misener, argued that the trickle down effects of Amazon's Prime Air service, which would see packages delivered to customers within 30 minutes, could have far-reaching societal impacts.
"Once operational, Prime Air will increase the overall safety and efficiency of the current ground transportation system, by allowing people to skip the quick trip to the store or by decreasing package delivery by truck or car," said Misener. "For the same reasons, Prime Air will reduce buyers’ environmental footprint. If a consumer wants a small item quickly, instead of driving to go shopping or causing delivery automobiles to come to her home or office, a small, electrically-powered UAS will make the trip faster and more efficiently and cleanly."
Last Thursday, the FAA gave Amazon permission to start testing its delivery drones outdoors. Misener said that while welcome, the exemption would be to little effect as it permitted them to test only a single type of drone, a drone that Amazon had long since improved upon and was now obsolete. "We don’t test it anymore. We’ve moved on to more advanced designs that we already are testing abroad."
In February, the FAA proposed a new set of rules for commercial flight. Misener also weighed in on these, claiming they would fail to usher in the technology in any meaningful way. He argued that for drones' to really fulfil their potential, regulations had to allow for their core capabilities: to fly with minimal human involvement beyond the line of sight. It is hard to see how Prime Air could become a reality otherwise.