The skies are about to get substantially more populated with drones.
They won’t deliver packages to your doorstep anytime soon, but a large menu of other kinds of commercial drone missions will become legal on Monday thanks to new federal rules. The guidelines also make it much simpler to become a commercial drone pilot, lowering the barrier of entry for people and companies to use unmanned aircraft commercially.
The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s new drone regulations limit commercial operations to relatively low-risk scenarios. The aircraft must weigh less than 55 pounds, remain below 400 feet, and cannot fly beyond the operator’s visual line of sight, at night, or directly over crowds of people.
But limiting flights to this fairly narrow context isn’t a problem, says Chris Anderson, the former Wired editor-in-chief who is now CEO of 3DR, a leading drone maker. “The vast majority of commercial uses that we can think of fall into that space perfectly,” says Anderson. “It’s a nice alignment between what’s safe, what the FAA feels is an easy thing to do now, and what’s commercially attractive.”
The use of drones to inspect and monitor infrastructure like cell phone towers, wind turbines, and tall bridges is likely to become much more popular now. Insurance companies will use unmanned aircraft to inspect rooftops. Crucially, the new rules allow for flights of above 400 feet when flying near structures taller than that, and up to 400 feet above the top of the structure.
It’s actually been possible since 2014 to fly drones commercially, but doing so has required an exemption from the FAA. The agency has granted more than 5,000 such passes, according to the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. Aerial photography has been the most popular application.
But most of the commercial drone operators thus far have been individuals or fairly small companies, and now that’s going to change, says Anderson. Before, big companies in industries like insurance and construction were deterred by the lack of formal regulations, and the requirement that drone pilots also be licensed to fly manned airplanes. Now becoming a drone pilot will be similar to getting a driver’s license. The new rules will clear the way for these companies to train many operators and deploy drones at a much larger scale than we’ve seen so far, he says.
A new process will allow companies to apply for waivers to fly missions that are outside the scope of the rules as long as they can demonstrate the reliable safety of the operation. Jesse Kallman, head of regulatory affairs and business development at Airware, which sells drone hardware and software systems, anticipates that the agency will “pretty quickly” begin approving waivers for night operations, for example. Insurance companies and others would like to fly at night because that’s when the temperature is optimal for using thermal imaging to inspect for leaks and other issues on tall buildings and structures.
More rules are coming. Next, the FAA has said it will regulate flights directly over crowds of people, which will create new opportunities for news organizations, law enforcement, and other security companies. Package delivery and other operations that involve flying beyond the drone operator’s line of sight, meanwhile, are probably years away. A lot more safety tests, and perhaps new kinds of air traffic control systems, are needed.