WASHINGTON — Routine commercial use of small drones was cleared for takeoff by the Obama administration Tuesday, after years of struggling to write rules that would both protect public safety and free the benefits of a new technology.
The Federal Aviation Administration has created a new category of rules for drones weighing less than 55 pounds. The long-anticipated rules would mean drone operators would be able to fly without special permission.
Currently, commercial operators have to apply for a waiver from rules that govern manned aircraft, a process that can be time-consuming and expensive.
Since 2014 the FAA has granted more than 6,100 waivers and another 7,600 are waiting for approval. Many more small companies have been using drones without FAA permission, say industry officials.
Unless those operators make a serious mistake that brings them to the FAA's attention, there's not a lot the agency can do to track them down. The new rules would provide an easier way for those businesses to operate legally.
The rules also would effectively lift the lid on flights by other potential operators who have held off using the technology — real estate agents who want bird's-eye videos of properties, ranchers who want to count cattle and a multitude of other businesses.
Under the new rules, operators must register their drones online and pass an aviation knowledge exam for drone pilots at an FAA-approved testing center. That would give them a drone pilot certification that's good for 24 months. That's a big change, since operators currently have to have a manned aircraft pilot's license. Operators must also present identification for a security vetting similar to that applied to general aviation pilots.
Operators also have to follow many of the rules that apply to model aircraft hobbyists, including keeping drones within sight at all times and not flying over people or higher than 400 feet. Speed would be limited to about 100 mph. The minimum age for commercial operators would be 16.
Drone flights will be permitted during the day. They will be permitted at twilight only if the drone is equipped with anti-collision lights. Operators could still seek waivers for nighttime flights. Drone industry officials have long complained that restricting drone flights to daytime precluded a great many uses like some search and rescue operations, agricultural operations best done after dark and roof inspections of commercial building roofs that use heat sensors.
The rules would still prevent delivery drones from flying across cities and suburbs clasping small packages, in part because that would entail flying over people. Amazon and Google announced two years ago that they are working on drone delivery systems for goods purchased online, and Google officials have said they expect deliveries to begin sometime in 2017.
Earlier this year, the Senate passed an aviation bill that would require the FAA to issue regulations within two years to enable drone deliveries. The House has been unable to pass its own version of the bill due to unrelated controversies.
Congress has been prodding the FAA for more than a decade to write rules to enable broad access to the national airspace by civilian drones. Initially, the agency put its emphasis on finding ways to enable larger drones like those used for military missions to safely fly at the same altitudes as airliners and other manned aircraft. After several years, the agency shifted its focus to small drones when it became clear that the market for their uses was developing much faster.
But the FAA's slow pace led frustrated lawmakers to include a provision in a major aviation bill four years ago setting deadlines for the agency to issue regulations to safely integrate small drones into the national airspace by August 2014 and other drones by September 2015.
The rules expected this week would fulfill that first deadline. The agency is also working on an array of other safety rules and standards to further broaden the circumstances under which drones can be flown. In April, FAA officials said they are working on regulations that would permit small, commercial drones to fly over people and crowd based on recommendations from an industry advisory committee. The recommendations called for allowing drones weighing about a half-pound or less to fly over people virtually without restriction and created three other categories of other drones that could fly over people if certain requirements are met.
Drones larger than a half-pound in the other three categories would have to maintain a distance from people of at least 20 feet overhead and 10 feet laterally. Manufacturers would have to crash-test drones and certify that they are unlikely to cause serious injury if the drones struck someone
This story has been corrected to show that recommendations on flights over people for drones weighing half pound or less and three other categories.