The United States Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has been slow to allow commercial use of drone aircraft, much to the chagrin of companies like Amazon and Google. However, the agency may be on the verge of loosening restrictions to make commercial drones more useful in the US. Under a set of proposed rules, commercial drone operators could fly aircraft at night and use them over populated areas.
Despite early concerns over the safety of drones, the number of incidents reported to the FAA is small. There are currently 1.3 million registered drone aircraft in the US and more than 116,000 registered operators. Although, this is a curious time to loosen restrictions. Two airports in the UK have been shut down in recent weeks by unauthorized drones in their airspace. The UK is considering new rules to limit the use of drones near airports as a result.
Nothing in the revised rules says that drone pilots can buzz their local airport, though. There are two changes that could bring commercial drones closer to reality in the US. First, licensed drones will be allowed to operate at night without any additional regulatory clearance. Previously, the FAA required waivers for nighttime operations. With 1,233 waivers granted through 2017, the FAA has not gotten any reports of nighttime accidents. The one additional requirement here is that drones operating at night need to have an “anti-collision” light that is visible from three miles away.
The second change is potentially more important, but it comes with more caveats. The FAA will let licensed operators fly certain drones over populated areas. The most notable restriction is that only small drones can do so without any additional regulatory oversight. The small unmanned aircraft can weigh no more than 0.55 pounds (0.25 kilograms). That’s one-hundred times smaller than Amazon’s proposed Prime Air drones, which weigh about 55 pounds (25 kilograms). For drones larger than the limit, manufacturers have to conduct testing that proves they would not cause serious bodily injury if they crashed into a person. That means exposed rotors are out.
Even the safest drones won’t be allowed everywhere. Airports are still (obviously) restricted, but the agency still won’t allow unmanned vehicles to fly over populated areas with large outdoor gatherings like sporting events or festivals.
For now, these are only proposed rules. It’s unlikely any changes will come until the government reopens.
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