The FAA Keeps Edging Closer To Broader Commercial-Drone Use

Little by little, the FAA seems to be unclenching from its strict regulatory limits on commercial-drone use.

Earlier this week, the agency said it would allow three companies to push past the boundaries of restrictive drone guidelines the FAA proposed earlier this year. Specifically, the FAA will allow these companies to test commercial drones that operate beyond their operator’s direct vision and, in one case, in urban areas.

Would-be commercial drone operators—particularly Amazon and its proposed Prime Air delivery service—have long chafed at the FAA’s unwillingness to allow broader testing and use of remotely piloted copters. The FAA’s proposed rules, for instance, would force all commercial-drone operators to obtain FAA certification, limit flights to daylight hours and altitudes of less than 500 feet, and require drones to remain within their operators’ lines of sight.

See also: The FAA Finally Suggests Drone-Use Rules—And They Don’t Allow Much

Now, however, the FAA says it will allow PrecisionHawk, a North Carolina-based remote sensing and data processing company, to use drones to survey crops in rural areas beyond visual range of their operators. BNSF Railroad, meanwhile, will do something with drone inspections of its rail infrastructure, again outside operator line-of-sight. 

In a separate effort, CNN will explore using drones for news gathering in populated urban areas.

“Even as we pursue our current rulemaking effort for small unmanned aircraft, we must continue to actively look for ways to expand non-recreational [unmanned aircraft systems] uses,” FAA administrator Michael Huerta said at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International Unmanned Systems 2015 conference this week. “This new initiative involving three leading U.S. companies will help us anticipate and address the needs of the evolving UAS industry.”

Drone enthusiasts find the FAA’s move heartening.

“It’s a very big development,” Michael Drobac, executive director of the Small UAV Coalition, said in an interview with ReadWrite. “Based on what they had been saying, the future of commercial drone use and even continued excitement around consumer drone use looked somewhat bleak. This represents a significant pivot on their part.” 

Photo by John Mills

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