The technological advances of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have been remarkable over the last couple of years. Their increasing capabilities and affordability promise many opportunities for commercial applications, ranging from farming to logistics. Despite the immense potential, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has long been quiet about the upcoming regulatory framework. Until now.
The FAA has just released proposed rules for commercial drones within the United States.
Although the rules are not as draconian as some people feared, commercial applications for UAVs are still facing limitations compared to other countries.
The FAA isn't requiring commercial drones to undergo a lengthy and costly certification process. UAVs under 55 lbs can be flown as long as the operators have passed a basic aeronautical test.
They must, however, be flown below 500 feet, only in daylight, and remain within view of their operators at all time. They also can not be flown over people, such as at concerts and sporting events.
This is a “good first step”, says the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems. It would easily allow, for example, a real estate agent to take aerial photographs of a house being put up for sale. It would also allow for farmers looking to survey crop conditions.
Not being allowed to fly over crowds might prevent television companies from filming sporting events with drones. Perhaps further certifications would allow such maneuvers in the future.
The requirement that the UAVs stay within line of sight is also a big limitation, preventing long-distance flights (inspecting forests and monitoring pipelines, for example). This would also rule out Amazon's plan of using drones to deliver goods ordered online.
Michael Huerta, head of the FAA, says that as drones develop the rules will continue to "evolve."
As the technology improves and operators build experience, perhaps the agency will eventually permit longer-range, out-of-sight flights.
In the meantime, the current proposals will undergo a lengthy period of public comment before being finalized- possibly in 2017.
Drone operations in other countries are already getting airborne with pilot projects. In China, Alibaba has launched a drone delivery service for tea orders. In Europe, the logistics firm DHL has begun delivering medicine and other urgent supplies to a small island off the coast of Germany.
To see some of these pilot programs in action, check out this video from the Wall Street Journal: