‘Watershed’ moment for drone regulation

The United States Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) unveiled long-awaited new rules this week that clear the way for small, commercial drones to operate in US airspace – but Americans should not expect an aerial delivery from Amazon just yet.

Under the FAA’s rules, drone operators will be allowed to fly commercial craft weighing less than 25kg during daylight hours, provided they can maintain a clear view of the drone at all times.

Although that effectively precludes the sort of robo-delivery services being developed by Amazon and other major vendors, the new rules will nonetheless ensure drones become increasingly commonplace in the skies.

Drone operators no longer need a full pilot’s licence, but must be 16 years or older, vetted by the Transportation Security Administration and able to pass an FAA test for a two-year certification.

Previously, commercial drone users had to apply for waivers to operate their craft, and authorities approved thousands of these applications on a case-by-case basis.

The White House cites industry estimates suggesting that drones could generate more than $82‑billion for the US economy over the coming decade, creating about 100 000 new jobs.

White House spokesperson Josh Earnest said US President Barack Obama’s administration would work closely with private businesses to continue streamlining regulations. “The president has made clear that the future success of our economy will depend on our ability to continue to innovate,” Earnest said.

The FAA foresees a wide range of commercial drone uses, including for crop inspection, scientific research and checking infrastructure for signs of wear. Media organisations want to use drone technology in news gathering.

But the rules, which take effect in late August, mean commercial drones cannot be flown over people not “directly participating in the operation”, meaning an unmanned craft cannot hover over groups of bystanders.

Commercial drones will be restricted to a maximum altitude of 120m and a top speed of 160km an hour. “We want to make sure we are striking the right balance between innovation and safety,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said.

The Obama administration had previously been criticised for its perceived slowness in establishing drone regulations, while the technology has been evolving rapidly.

Drone companies hailed the new regulations as a watershed moment for the industry. “The new rules codify common sense, making it easier for a farmer to fly a drone over his fields, for a contractor to inspect property without climbing a ladder and for a rescue service to use drones to save lives,” said Jon Resnick of DJI, a major drone manufacturer.

The new rules skirt contentious privacy issues, with the FAA deferring to state and local laws governing data gathering.

The FAA said it would provide drone users with recommended privacy guidelines as part of their registration process. Drone operators can apply for waivers for many of the new restrictions, provided they can show that a proposed flight poses no safety risks.

FAA administrator Michael Huerta said his agency was already looking to commercial drone uses beyond those outlined this week. “This is just our first step,” he said. “We’re already working on additional rules that will expand the range of operations.”

As the world’s largest online retailer, Amazon raised eyebrows in late 2013 with its plan to airlift small parcels to customers by drone in select markets, less than 30 minutes after an order is received. It has gone to other countries to test its evolving technology, including a secret location in the Canadian province of British Columbia. – AFP

Thomas Watkins
Thomas Watkins
AFP's Kabul bureau chief.

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