The Obama administration is opening US skies to more commercial drones with long-awaited regulations that the government hopes will spawn new industries for inspecting bridges, monitoring crops and taking aerial photography.
It’s the most comprehensive set of rules yet for the burgeoning use of sophisticated unmanned aircraft. Compared with current law, the final regulations from the US Federal Aviation Administration will allow a far greater range of uses.
“We are in the early days of an aviation revolution that will change the way we do business, keep people safe, and gather information about our world,” President Barack Obama said in an interview with Bloomberg News. “This is just a first step, but this is the kind of innovative thinking that helps make change work for us — not only to grow the economy, but to improve the lives of the American people.”
The rules could be a boost for drone manufacturers such as SZ DJI Technology Co. of China, the world’s largest. Other US companies that have been working with the FAA on expanding drone operations, such as PrecisionHawk in Raleigh, North Carolina, and AirMap Inc of Santa Monica, California, also stand to benefit.
The new regulations, which become effective two months from publication in the Federal Register, took years to craft and are seen as a critical step toward realising the potential of drones to perform such tasks as monitoring crops, inspecting power lines and pipelines as well as assisting government agencies in disasters.
The rules permit only low-level flights within sight of an operator and not over people. Drone operators-for-hire will have to pass a written test and be vetted by the Transportation Security Administration — but no longer need to be aeroplane pilots as current law requires. Drones under the regulation must weight less than 55 pounds (25 kilograms).
Drone package deliveries by companies such as Amazon.com Inc and Alphabet Inc’s Google Project Wing aren’t allowed under the regulations until the FAA writes separate rules governing their use. Similarly, the limitations in the regulations won’t permit longer flights for agricultural flyovers, pipeline and utility inspections and news media photography over crowds.
While the rules don’t apply directly to hobbyists, who don’t need a license to fly if they’ve registered their drones with the FAA, it lays out the government’s authority to enforce aviation regulations on all unmanned aircraft.
Drone-advocacy groups called the regulations a symbolic victory that paves the way for those future uses. The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International trade group forecasts drones will produce $82 billion in economic value and create more than 100,000 new jobs in the first 10 years after widespread flights are approved.
“I regard it as a significant milestone,” said AUVSI President Brian Wynne, who had been pushing FAA to issue the regulations for years. “We’ll accelerate the process of understanding what the risks are that will allow us to move on to more complex operations.”
The release of the rules puts the US ahead of Europe in setting standards for the drone industry. The European Union has yet to adopt comprehensive rules for civilian drones, according to the European Aviation Safety Agency website. Individual nations have imposed restrictions, but they differ across borders. EASA is trying to develop rules by 2017.
The FAA has already convened groups to study how to eventually allow such flights. Test programmes are examining how to: approve long-range drone flights in which an operator steers with video images; make unmanned craft safe to fly over people; and expand agricultural uses.
The Obama administration also announced new federal initiatives with Nasa, the FAA and other government agencies to study how to broaden drone uses for tasks such as disaster response and environmental monitoring. Nasa is already developing an air-traffic control system for low-altitude drones.
The FAA has permitted commercial drone operations — those conducted for hire, as opposed to recreational flights by hobbyists who don’t need a license — since September 2014 under a case-by-case exemption process ordered by Congress. Drone operators under this programme had to have a traditional pilot’s license. As of June 2, the agency had granted 6,004 such permits to fly drones commercially.
The new regulation allows a far easier approval process and is expected to swell the ranks of commercial operators. The agency is dropping the requirement for a pilots’ license, relying instead on a simpler knowledge test. FAA-approved drone operators will have more leeway to fly different drone models and multiple missions.
The regulations are “a major step for not only unmanned aerial systems, but virtually every sector of the economy,” Gregory Walden, counsel to the Small UAV Coalition, a Washington trade group, said in a news release before the rules were released. Walden called the action a victory “for innovation in technology and a new era in aviation.”
They also will promote safety at a time when hundreds of thousands of hobbyists are flying with limited FAA oversight, Wynne said. There were more than 1,200 reports of drone safety incidents last year, including flying too close to airliners, according to FAA.
The new rules codify what until now have been set out as FAA policy statements and interpretations. All drones are aircraft and subject to FAA enforcement actions if operators are reckless or fly in prohibited zones, according to the agency.
“We need an attitude of professionalism where people are working to improve the safety record all the time,” Wynne said. People who obtain FAA drone-pilot certificates will now have an economic incentive to help police the system, he said.
Operators will be restricted to flying below 400 feet, more than five miles from an airport without obtaining FAA permission and must keep the device within sight — limiting flights to roughly a quarter mile.