The drone future flies even closer

April 26, 2021, 2:22 PM UTC

You may not have noticed any new buzzing overhead yet, but commercial drone operators won extensive new freedoms last week.

When last we checked in on Washington’s view of unmanned flying things last year, innovation was taking off rather slowly. Lately, though, there’s been some movement. The Federal Aviation Administration allowed more kinds of drone delivery flights across the country. And the agency’s big reform of its Part 107 rules governing commercial operations finally took effect on April 21 after years of debate.

Under the new rules, commercial drone pilots can fly at night or over vehicles without needing to apply for a special waiver from the FAA and flights over people are now also permitted in many circumstances. On the other hand, the rules also added an automated radio identification requirement for almost all drones that goes into effect in September 2023.

The changes should make it much easier to use drones to photograph events, conduct monitoring and inspection flights, and film scenes for movies.

But we’re still a long way from the science-fiction vision of remote flying vehicles filling the skies, ferrying goods and maybe even people all over the place. Companies with bigger drones doing riskier things like hauling packages still have to seek FAA permission under the agency’s Part 135 rules. Google sister company Wing Aviation, for example, just filed to expand the delivery drone service it currently runs in Christiansburg, Virginia, to more cities.

After some controversy, the FAA dropped a proposed requirement that all drones be connected to the Internet while flying in order to disclose their identification. Instead, all but the smallest drones will be required to carry a radio transmitter broadcasting their ID to anyone in the area monitoring the correct frequency. Even that reduced requirement upset Wing, which said the rule might allow nefarious parties to track drone operations.

“An observer tracking a drone can infer sensitive information about specific users, including where they visit, spend time, and live and where customers receive packages from and when,” Wing reps noted in a blog post. “American communities would not accept this type of surveillance of their deliveries or taxi trips on the road. They should not accept it in the sky.”

Despite the complaints, remote identification is a key part of creating an air traffic control system for drones that could really unleash the potential of the industry. The FAA and various partners last fall conducted tests in New York and Virginia of futuristic drone control systems that could enable “drone highways” in the sky while making sure that drone operations could be halted or shifted in an emergency. Everything worked as planned. Now if only the feds could hurry up and let the industry really take flight.

Fortune unveiled a new initiative on Monday that may be of interest to many Data Sheet readers: We’re now ranking and covering online education offerings, starting with online MBA programs. In our new rankings, UNC Chapel Hill, Indiana University, and Carnegie Mellon nab the top three spots. There’s also additional coverage, including advice on whether to get an MBA at all, a comparison of online and traditional MBA programs, and some recommended executive leadership programs too.

Aaron Pressman


Live from New York, it's Martian night! After bringing down libel lawsuits, factory fines, and securities investigations, is there any new kind of trouble Tesla CEO Elon Musk can back into? We'll find out soon, as NBC's Saturday Night Live said the opinionated tech executive would host the May 8th edition of Saturday Night Live alongside musical guest Miley Cyrus. I guess we will learn once and for all whether Musk has a sense of humor about himself. What's the over/under on self-driving car jokes and will there be more or fewer jokes about living on Mars?

Ricky don't lose that number. Using the AirDrop file sharing feature in Apple devices could allow hackers to grab phone numbers and email addresses. A report from Technische Universitat Darmstadt called the potential attack a “significant privacy leak.” In other cybersecurity news, researcher and hacker Dan Kaminsky died last week at age 42. Kaminsky was chief scientist at the firm Human Security and was one of the foremost security experts on the Internet's domain name system.

No takebacks. Recently public online lender Affirm is putting its IPO proceeds to good use. Max Levchin's startup will pay $300 million for Returnly, which makes software for retailers that handles the return process. Apple has been public for a lot longer and its investments are a lot bigger. The iPhone maker said Monday that it will build a new $1 billion campus in Raleigh, North Carolina, as part of a nationwide push to add 20,000 new jobs over five years. But the biggest investment deal of the day comes to us thanks to private equity firm Thoma Bravo, which is buying cybersecurity service Proofpoint for $12.3 billion. That's $176 per share, or 34% above Proofpoint's stock price at Friday's close.

Catcher in the sky. In addition to all the recent drone developments, Internet-from-space startup OneWeb lofted 36 more of its satellites into orbit on Sunday. The just-out-of-bankruptcy operator now has launched 182 out of a planned 650 satellites and is on track to start service later this year. Even farther away, NASA's Mars helicopter took its third flight and sped over 300 feet across the red planet. Just a couple more flights left until little Ingenuity has completed its entire mission.

Would you do it for a Scooby snack? A couple of kind of crazy deep dives for you if you're in the mood on a Monday. The Washington Post tries to unravel the mystery of why millions of unused Internet addresses controlled by the Pentagon suddenly went online in January. And the New York Times falls down the rabbit hole of the online reputation repair industry and how it seems closely linked to the online reputation destruction industry.

Three yards and a Clubhouse. Hyped audio startup Clubhouse inked a seriously mainstream deal that I didn't see coming. The NFL will host a bunch of exclusive rooms on the service leading up to this week's draft, with athletes, coaches, and network personalities dropping in. Meanwhile, hyped video streaming platform Roku says Google is demanding too much and it may have to drop YouTubeTV. It urged customers in an email to contact Google and "urge them to reach an agreement" without special conditions for its apps.


People are doing all kinds of things with wireless technology beyond monitoring drone flights. Former Fortune editor Stacey Higginbotham, who now publishes the excellent "Stacey on IoT" newsletter, signed up with wireless startup Helium. That's the company building an ad-hoc Internet of Things network by convincing regular people to hook up its network hotspots to their home broadband. As an incentive, the hotspots generate a Helium cryptocurrency token when accessed by a Helium customer. And you'll never guess what happened next.

What I hadn’t been focused on were the tokens themselves. Yes, I vaguely tracked the debates taking place in various forums about how tokens were mined and potential forks in the code, but I was operating the hotspot as a grand experiment in IoT networks, not for any hope of future value.

Then last month, after people kept emailing me about HNTs and seeing that the routers were all sold out, I took a closer look at the app. In doing so, I noticed an update that offered me the chance to convert my HNTs to a dollar figure, so I clicked it. And all of a sudden those 1,100+ HNTs turned into $10,876 and some change. (They fluctuate, like all cryptocurrencies. As of Thursday evening, 1,100 HNT are worth $16,500.)

When I told (my husband) Kevin about this, at first he laughed at me. Then he told me how I could turn that imaginary Helium money into actual cash. Y’all may roll your eyes, but I can explain what the blockchain is and even understand the concepts behind mining. And yet, for me, the blockchain is best used for building trust and accountability between machines, whereas the entire cryptocurrency market is merely a digression.


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The less said about the Oscar's TV broadcast the better? Still, the diversity of winners was dramatically better than past years, and tech-adjacent movie Nomadland, which we just recommended the other day, won best picture, while its director Chloé Zhao and lead actress Frances McDormand also won. Not a great look for Amazon, though Zhao toned down the anti-capitalist take of the her depressing source material by Jessica Bruder.

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