FAA’s relaxed drone rules could mean big changes for industry

May 8, 2015, 4:41 PM UTC
Airplane flies over a drone during the Polar Bear Plunge on Coney Island in the Brooklyn borough of New York
An airplane flies over a drone during the Polar Bear Plunge on Coney Island in the Brooklyn borough of New York January 1, 2015. The Coney Island Polar Bear Club is one of the oldest winter bathing organizations in the United States and holds a New Year's Day plunge every year. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri (UNITED STATES - Tags: SOCIETY ANNIVERSARY) - RTR4JUL7
Photograph by Carlo Allegri — Reuters

Rumours that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) may relax its restrictions on commercial drones that fly outside of the operator’s line of sight received the official stamp of credibility at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International’s annual trade show.

Speaking to reporters and industry representatives at the event, FAA chief Michael Huerta signaled the agency’s openness to approving beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) operations and announced a couple of research projects aimed at demonstrating their safety.

The agency will take part in three new research projects with industry partners in the months ahead. Two of the projects will be aimed at better characterizing BVLOS operations, demonstrating the technologies underpinning such flights while also establishing safety and performance data the agency can integrate into its rule-making process. Such drone operations are currently prohibited under the commercial drone rules unveiled by the FAA in February and in each of the so-called Section 333 exemptions the agency has granted to companies on a case-by-case basis authorizing them to fly drones commercially.

The news is a significant sign from the FAA, which has been increasingly (yet cautiously) working with companies and industry groups to provide drone regulations the industry can live with. BVLOS operations have been something of a sticking point thus far. Industry groups contend that companies can’t fully unlock the real economic benefits drones impart—or compete with more permissive regulatory environments overseas—without the ability to operate beyond visual line of sight. The Air Line Pilots Association currently opposes such operations, deeming them unnecessarily risky.

In the past, Amazon has been particularly vocal in its support of integrating BVLOS operations into the FAA’s general commercial drone rules. A patent application published April 30 details the company’s plans for drone delivery, which would require operators—and eventually autonomous piloting software—to dispatch drones over long distances to deposit parcels.

But the research projects and partners selected by the FAA are indicative of the much more realistic—and arguably more important—impact drones will have on the industry in the near term. The FAA has granted North Carolina-based PrecisionHawk, a manufacturer of fixed-wing platforms, permission to conduct research on BVLOS precision agriculture operations. BNSF railroad will research ways that BVLOS drone use can improve the way the transportation giant inspects and manages its rail infrastructure and rolling stock. (A third research project will allow CNN to explore news-gathering methods but will not explore BVLOS operations.)

These kinds of applications—such as infrastructure inspection, precision agriculture and wide-area surveillance—are the real, or at least immediate, future of commercial BVLOS drones. The industry remains worried that if the FAA fails to open up its skies to BLVOS commercial opportunities, U.S. companies could be left behind.

“BVLOS technology has already matured to the point that BVLOS operations are now permitted in some other countries such as the Czech Republic, France, Poland, Sweden and Norway where BVLOS operations have been conducted for years with high levels of safety,” the Small UAV Coalition, an industry lobby backed by such companies as Google, Amazon, and PrecisionHawk wrote in a recent letter to FAA Administrator Huerta.

These research partnerships don’t come with any funding from the FAA, but they do allow PrecisionHawk and BNSF Railroad to gather data and prove to the FAA that BVLOS operations can be conducted safely and in ways that impart a meaningful economic impact.

If they can do so, legal BVLOS operations may not be so far in following. “We anticipate receiving valuable data from each of these trials that could result in FAA-approved operations in the next few years,” Huerta said in his address at AUVSI, which is a far cry from the hard “no” companies received from the FAA up until now.

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