In welcome news for businesses banking on the commercial potential of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has put forward a proposal for guidelines surrounding commercial drone use. The rules would clear the air for some applications of the technology, though would still leave certain big-name players, such as Amazon, in limbo.
As drone technology has advanced and its capabilities and popularity become harder to ignore, pressure has mounted on the FAA to reform aviation laws to better accommodate UAVs. Beginning last September, it responded by granting a series of waivers to select companies, as assessed on a case-by-case basis, allowing them to use drones as part of their operations.
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Announced on Sunday, the FAA's latest move in this area more closely resembles a one-size-fits all solution, but it's not quite there yet. It claims that the proposed framework would enable routine use of certain, smaller aircraft in the existing aviation system, while still taking into consideration future technological advances.
The guidelines set forward by the FAA would dictate that the aircraft only be flown within sight of the operator and that they don't pose a threat to other aircraft, people or private property. It also includes not flying over people at all unless they are a part of the operating team, no dropping items from the vehicle, not exceeding speeds of 100 mph (161 km/h) or altitudes over 500 ft (152.4 m).
Pilots would be known as operators and would need to be at least 17 years of age. They would be required to pass an initial knowledge test to gain an FAA certificate and then pass subsequent tests every two years.
These requirements, if adopted, could give the green light for drone use in industries such as surveying, construction, agriculture, real estate and perhaps even some wildlife conservation. But stipulating that the aircraft must stay within the operator's line of site would appear to rule out using drones as delivery vehicles, as would the pesky no-dropping-items rule (condolences to the Burrito Bomber team).
This is unlikely to go down well at Amazon, whose Prime Air concept more or less dragged the notion of delivery drones into the mainstream in 2013. The company has been vocal about its frustrations with the FAA and the regulatory roadblocks in rolling out of the service. In December, it made public a letter to the agency revealing it was developing outdoor test facilities in other countries, raising the possibility that its drones may first take flight outside the US.
"The FAA needs to begin and expeditiously complete the formal process to address the needs of our business, and ultimately our customers," Paul Misener, Amazon vice-president of global public policy, said in response to the proposal in a statement to the Guardian. “We are committed to realising our vision for Prime Air and are prepared to deploy where we have the regulatory support we need."
But the FAA's announcement doesn't rule out the proposition of drone deliveries in the US entirely. The proposed rules are just that, proposed, and will undergo public comment and debate before any are actually implemented. In particular, the FAA is requesting public comment on whether the new framework should permit flights beyond the line of sight, and what sensible limitations may be.
"We have tried to be flexible in writing these rules," said FAA Administrator Michael Huerta. "We want to maintain today’s outstanding level of aviation safety without placing an undue regulatory burden on an emerging industry."
The FAA has also floated the idea of creating a separate classification and framework for micro UAVs, that is, drones weighing less 4.4 lb (2 kg).