New FAA drone regulations may permit increased commercial applications

An expanded set of rules for drone operators released today by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) raised hopes that the government is moving forwards in its efforts to regulate this uncharted area of aviation in the United States.

The 624-page set of rules, known as “Part 107,” is the most comprehensive body of regulation on unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) in the U.S. to date. The new rules still impose strict limits on UAV operations, but they are being considered as a step towards commercial operations for businesses and public agencies.

From a practical standpoint, the updated regulations preclude most commercial UAS operations. The FAA stipulates that “unmanned drones must weigh less than 25 kg,” and that drones must “remain within visual line-of-sight” of the operator. The agency also maintained other extant rules, such as a ban on operation in densely populated areas, altitude restrictions and limits on camera applications for “see-and-avoid.” In other words, Americans are still a long way from having cheeseburgers airlifted into their waiting arms.

This hasn’t stopped some on the periphery of the airfreight industry from celebrating the latest development, such as Logan Campbell, founder of drone consulting firm Aerotas. Campbell told MarketWatch that “a number of industries can benefit from these rules the instant they go into effect, such as surveying, real estate photography, constructing or cell tower inspection.”

According to analysis published by Aerotas, restrictions such as prohibitions on flying over densely populated areas are not sacrosanct, and the FAA has finally provided “a straightforward process for efficiently requesting a waiver from this rule.”

Adam Lisberg, spokesman for the China-based flying and camera-stabilization-systems company DJI, was more circumspect. The most important facet of the new rules, he maintained, is their clarification on pilot’s licenses.

“Businesses, farmers, government agencies and academic researchers can put drones to work without having to get an airplane pilot’s license or follow other onerous rules. Those were pretty high barriers to entry,” Lisberg explained. Instead, the FAA’s new rules stipulate that operators, “need a remote pilot airman certificate with a small UAS rating, or be under the direct supervision of a person who holds such a certificate,” according to a fact sheet posted in conjunction with the new rules.

So while Amazon’s delivery drone ambitions are still far from legal, UAS’s will continue their unrelenting expansion into the American economy. “With this new rule, we are taking a careful and deliberate approach that balances the need to deploy this new technology with the FAA’s mission to protect public safety,” said FAA Administrator Michael Huerta. He also said that his agency was, “already working on additional rules that will expand the range of operations.”

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