America's Federal Aviation Authority has put forth a set of proposed amendments to current drone laws that would allow drone users to fly over crowds and at night under certain circumstances, without needing to file paperwork and obtain exemptions.

The US Secretary of Transportation, Elaine Chao, put forth the proposed rule changes at the annual meeting of the Transportation Research Board in Washington on Monday. Admitting that "the possibilities for innovation in unmanned aircraft technology are virtually boundless and that the industry can move in ways that no one can predict," a draft document offers two key rule changes designed to support innovators in the UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) business.

The first is to allow routine small UAV operations at night, under the condition that the pilot is trained for such activities and the drone has anti-collision lighting visible from 3 miles away (4.8 km). Currently, drone operators need to apply for an exemption to fly at night, an annoying and paperwork-heavy process. The FAA says it hasn't received any reports of accidents or injuries from night flights under its waiver program.

The second is to begin opening up the ability to fly over people who aren't part of the UAV crew. The proposal puts forward the idea of having three categories for flights over crowds.

Category one would be for small drones weighing less than 0.55 lbs in total (250 grams) –drones too small to require registration in the USA. Believing these small UAVs pose little risk of injury to people below, the new rules would allow pilots to fly them over people without an exemption, but under the existing requirements of the FAA's Part 107 unmanned aircraft regulations.

Category two would allow using larger drones over crowds, but only ones that could demonstrate they wouldn't injure people if they fell on them or flew into them. The FAA proposes a limit of 11 ft-lbs of kinetic energy as the maximum acceptable amount of force a crash might result in on a bystander, and says this kind of performance-based requirement "enables the ingenuity of the industry" to come up with exactly how to achieve it. Likewise, category two drones must not have exposed props that could lacerate human skin – but again, it's up to manufacturers to figure out how to achieve that, either through prop design, prop guards or otherwise.

Category three would allow higher-risk flights to be undertaken, but managed operationally. Thus, there would be no flying over crowds except within a closed or restricted-access site in which every participant was made explicitly aware of the drone operation.

It'll be fascinating to see how quickly the industry responds to these regulations –particularly in the development of category two drones that could be big enough to commence commercial-scale drone deliveries. That's should these rules be adopted. This is by no means set in stone. The US government is understandably touchy about the idea of drone-based terror attacks occurring near crowds, and has been working on other proposals that would require drones to broadcast their identity and position to allow them to be tracked and monitored.

Of course, these kinds of regulations would likely only impact law-abiding UAV users, as it's trivially simple for a hobbyist to build a fully functional drone out of off-the-shelf parts without obeying any such rules.

Source: FAA / Bloomberg