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FAA task force issues recommendations for new drone regulations

The group is made up of companies like Google, Amazon, and Walmart

Nigel Roddis/Getty Images

The task force of private companies and interest groups charged by the Federal Aviation Administration with coming up with recommendations for new drone regulations has issued its final report. None of what is in this report is automatically going to become official policy, either for the FAA or Department of Transportation, which sits above the FAA and recently became more directly involved in setting out new regulations for drones. But the recommendations from this task force are likely to carry a lot of weight with the regulators, who are leaning on the private sector for guidance in dealing with a rapidly growing and changing new industry.

The most important recommendations in the new document deal with which drones need to be registered and how that registration will work. The task force found that drones under 250 grams, or about .55 pounds, do not pose a substantial threat to human life, even if they were to fall from the sky, and so they do not need to be registered. For everything above .55 pounds the group recommended the following three-part system of registration.

1) Fill out an electronic registration form through the web or through an application (app).

2) Immediately receive an electronic certificate of registration and a personal universal registration number for use on all sUAS owned by that person.

3) Mark the registration number (or registered serial number) on all applicable sUAS prior to their operation in the NAS.

The task force also recommended that a basic education course be part of the registration process. It followed the same basic guidelines for safe flight — at least one operator per drone, no flying at night, no flying beyond line of sight, and no flying over populated areas — that the FAA already has in place.

The task force included some fairly detailed mathematical explanations justifying their decisions to exempt drones under 250 grams from regulations. If you ever wanted to see what an acceptable risk to human life from a falling drone looks like, the proof is below.

drone risk calculation

The recommendations are made for rules that would apply to drones under 55 pounds and for pilots over the age of 13. These both rely on established guidelines from the world of model aircraft that have been governing drones while the FAA works on new rules. Anything over 55 pounds is already subject to stricter oversight by the FAA and does not qualify as a unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV, the official name for what most people now call drones. And most serious drones, like the DJI Phantom for example, were already manufactured with a warning that they should be sold only to customers 18 years or older.

What is really interesting about today's recommendations is that they propose a lot of smart, technocratic solutions to the issues arising from autonomous and semi-autonomous vehicles. Drones and driverless cars are putting robots out into the real world that are capable of navigating by themselves over great distances. Our laws have not yet caught up. The DOT, FAA, and NASA all recognize this and are working closely with the private sector to come up with solutions and standards for safe operation.

"We have an opportunity here to usher in a new era of government, one that takes a really smart technocratic approach supported by the private sector," says Jonathan Evans, CEO of the drone startup Skyward and a former pilot military and medical pilot. "We want to get them to think about simple web solutions, about using APIs, about authenticating with social logins like Facebook and Twitter. It could lay a great foundation for regulating not just autonomous vehicles, but the entire internet of things."