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Drone manufacturers hopeful about direction of new FAA regulations

In releasing regulations last week that clarified the rules for operating small, pilotless aircraft, the Federal Aviation Administration lifted the spirits of drone manufacturers, though not quite satisfying all of their hopes to unleash the potential for what they see as an expanding, multibillion-dollar industry.

The new FAA rules standardize safety regulations for unmanned drones weighing less than 55 pounds that are involved in commercial operations in U.S. airspace. Such lightweight drone craft, dubbed unmanned aircraft systems, or UAS, by the federal agency, have widespread uses, including mapping, inspections of building sites, agricultural surveys, search and rescue missions, disaster relief and television and film production.

“We fully expect the rules will go into effect in August, 60 days after publication of the rule in the Federal Register,” FAA spokeswoman Alison Duquette told AMI Newswire, adding that reactions to the new rules were very positive.

The FAA reports that the drone regulations may help the industry add $82 billion to the American economy, as well as 100,000 jobs, over the next decade.

Under the new drone regulations, operators can fly the devices during daylight and twilight — defined as a half-hour before sunrise or a half-hour after sunset — provided they have appropriate anti-collision lighting. Drones can only fly if visibility is at least 3 miles from the aircraft’s control station, the FAA regulations state.

Furthermore, the aircraft cannot go higher than 400 feet above ground level, unless they need to go higher to clear a structure. The FAA set a maximum speed limit of 100 miles per hour.

One regulation that some businesses may find constraining is that the drone has to be within the line of sight of the operator. In other words, an observer must be able to monitor the aircraft without resorting to devices such as binoculars.

That would rule out any blanket approval of the more ambitious drone delivery plans advanced by some businesses. For example, Amazon has a plan that seems right out of the old “Jetsons” cartoon. Its Prime Air delivery system envisions drones landing in customers’ backyards and depositing packages 30 minutes after they place an internet order.

The company, however, wants to use automated and high-tech monitoring to safely get the package up to 50 miles away from warehouse facilities. The plan does not fit with regulations requiring line-of-sight monitoring.

Duquette indicated that waivers to the new drone requirements may be given out in some cases. “Delivery operations are permitted that are in compliance with the new rule,” she said, “and operators may apply for waivers to some of the provisions of the rule.”

The new commercial regulations also bar drones from flying over unprotected people on the ground, and the drone operator must be at least 16 years old and hold a remote pilot certificate with an applicable UAS rating. The rules do not apply to hobbyists flying model aircraft.

“This is just our first step,” FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said in a prepared statement last week. “We’re already working on additional rules that will expand the range of operations.”

One drone delivery service, Flirtey, on Wednesday completed what the company says was the first ship-to-shore drone delivery. The event took place along the New Jersey coastline.

In an effort to showcase the potential importance of drones in humanitarian missions, the company flew a drone carrying medical samples between a shore-based medical camp at Cape May to a testing lab aboard a ship located off the coast. Drones then delivered medical supplies back to the medical camp, simulating a humanitarian medical operation.

Asked if Flirtey had a response to the new FAA drone rules, company spokeswoman Molly Livingston provided the following statement to AMI Newswire:

“Flirtey looks forward to continuing our work with FAA to create world-leading, safe and progressive regulation that builds the framework for drones to fly over people and beyond the line of sight in order to keep pace with the rapidly advancing drone industry.”

The company also urged the FAA to apply these more flexible regulations for companies with solid track records of safety and those that use top-rated technology.

Another company, DJI, which is based in China but has its North American headquarters in Los Angeles, seemed more accepting of the FAA’s new rules.

“After years of work, DJI and other advocates for reasonable regulation are pleased that the FAA now has a basic set of rules for integrating commercial drone operations into the national airspace,” said the company’s vice president of policy and legal affairs, Brendan Schulman, in a prepared statement.

Company officials noted that previously, commercial drone operators had to wait months to get an FAA exemption for drone operations and had to employ a pilot with a license to fly manned aircraft. That caused frustrations for business owners, company officials said.

One organization that didn’t think the FAA regulations went far enough to ensure safety was the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), which released a statement last week noting that safety benefits such as the line-of-sight rule, the barring of nighttime operations and the altitude limits were welcome.

But the association went on to state, “ALPA would like to see the FAA take a stronger stance in ensuring that those who commercially pilot (small) UAS hold the same certificate as commercial-rated pilots. This will assure a standard level of aeronautical knowledge and training across all pilots operating UAS commercially.”

Duquette said that the FAA has yet to issue a rule for larger drone aircraft.

“We addressed small drones first since that is what most people want to operate,” she explained. “However, we have had an authorization process in place for a number of years that allows public entities such as the Department of the Interior to operate larger drones.”