The Federal Aviation Administration has legalized commercial drone operations for the first time, marking a significant victory for the fledgling industry that will likely spur tens of billions of dollars in economic growth, experts and U.S. officials say.
The new drone rules, which will take effect in late August, apply to unmanned aircraft weighing 55 pounds or less with a limited flight altitude of up to 400 feet and speed up to100 MPH. In addition, drone pilots will only be able to fly during the daytime and must maintain sight of their aircraft.
In what legal experts and industry players say is the most significant change, the rules will allow drone pilots to operate their aircraft without a manned pilot's license, a requirement that has been criticized as ill-fitting and overly burdensome. Instead, commercial pilots will be required to pass an aeronautical knowledge exam at an FAA-approved test center.
"This is the first page in a new chapter for aviation technology," said Jason Miller, the deputy director of the National Economic Council during a call with reporters. Joining other top U.S. technology and economic officials, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx described the rules in historic terms, comparing the green-lighting of commercial drones to the innovations of the Wright brothers. "These aircraft truly have the potential to transform the way we fly," Foxx said.
Until the new policy takes hold, flying drones for a business purpose remains illegal by default. Before these rules were announced, pilots wishing to use drones in moneymaking ventures had to pursue a special exemption process, known as Section 333, to petition the FAA to do so. Secretary Foxx said that the FAA has approved over 7,000 of these exemptions to date. The new policy would do away with the much-maligned Section 333 process.
While legal experts and industry players are pleased with the FAA's decision to approve commercial drone operations, they are eager to work with regulators to relax the restrictions on nighttime flying, operations beyond line-of-sight, and flights that take place over people.
"There are a lot of different commercial operations that are still going to be hindered by this rule," Gretchen West, the co-executive director of the Commercial Drone Alliance, and a senior advisor with the law firm Hogan Lovells told BuzzFeed News. Railroad operators, oil and gas firms, and utility companies are some of the businesses that would benefit from more relaxed rules, she said.
FAA chief Michael Huerta told BuzzFeed News that businesses can seek a waiver from the FAA for nighttime flying and operations beyond a pilot's line of sight if they can demonstrate the safety of their flights. Huerta added that the waiver process for a broader range of drone operations would be as streamlined as possible. This one-off approval process, however, has been the target of criticism by lawmakers and drone industry groups in the past, who say that regulators are moving too slowly.
As of this morning, the FAA's website stated that the Section 333 exemption process would be delayed because of an influx of applications. That web page now appears to have been removed.
But as the new rules demonstrate, waivers and exemptions can eventually lead to wider government approval.
When asked for a timeline on the launch of ambitious drone delivery services, including the kind Amazon is developing, Huerta said that the FAA first needs to see if it can be done safely. "It's an active research program," he said.