FAA Committee Says Drones Should Be Allowed To Fly Over Cities And Crowds

Industry experts believe small unmanned aircraft can fly as close as 20 feet above people with little risk of injury. A brave set of drone crash test dummies may be called upon to test that claim.

A special committee convened by the Federal Aviation Administration, which included Google X, GoPro, and DJI, wants to give drone operators the freedom to fly directly over people, within 20 feet of their unsuspecting heads.

The committee, comprising 27 drone companies and aviation organizations, was assembled to develop rules for unmanned aircraft operations occurring near people and crowds — think drone journalism, photography, agriculture, and construction. Drone operators are currently banned from flying within 500 feet of people, which industry experts believe is holding the drone market back, preventing the most useful applications for unmanned aircraft.

“If it weighs less than 250 grams, or .55 pounds, you’re approved, you can operate it over somebody’s head,” said Earl Lawrence, the director of the FAA’s drone integration office who co-chaired the committee. The weight requirements were based on minimizing the likelihood of serious injury if an overhead drone were to collide with a bystander. Lawrence told reporters on a press call Wednesday that there is a less than 1% chance of serious injury if a drone at that weight crashed into a person. (But how much would it hurt? Test dummies may soon tell us.)

For these smaller drones, pilots can fly as close as 20 feet over people, and within 10 feet laterally, as they take off and land, said Nancy Egan, the general counsel of 3D Robotics, who also co-chaired the committee.

“This will help pave the way for all of us to take advantage of the benefits of drones in many different industries with very little risk,” Lisa Ellman, a partner at the law firm Hogan Lovells who leads its unmanned aircraft practice, told BuzzFeed News.

While the recommendations apply primarily to the lightest aircraft, the proposal marks some progress for the possibility of drone operations in cities and densely populated areas. It may also signal how flexible carve-outs can lead to the acceptance of more ambitious drone ventures, such as Amazon Prime Air and Walmart's drone delivery services.

Heavier drones may also fly over people, the committee recommended, but before they can be cleared to do so, drone manufacturers must pass industry crash tests and submit a federal affidavit to the FAA affirming their safety standards. The tests must prove that these larger aircraft would meet the health standard of a less than 1% chance of serious injury in an accident. “Think: like the crash test that automotive [companies] do, like when you see the car with a dummy in it, and they hit the wall,” Lawrence said.

The members of the committee were unanimous in their recommendations, which will be sent to the FAA and then opened up to public comment before being officially adopted. One proposal, however, did evoke some dissent. Four members of the committee want operators of even the smallest drones to undergo on-site knowledge exams and government background checks, Egan said. The majority of the group, in contrast, believes those requirements are overly burdensome. Instead, they propose an online test and no background check.

The FAA’s finalized rules for commercial drone operations are expected later this year, and would broadly sanction the use of drones in moneymaking ventures for the first time in the United States.

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