A working group commissioned by the Federal Aviation Administration has released a set of recommendations for how small drones should be regulated, opening a path for commercial drone flight over US cities. The report suggests creating several classes of drones, and allowing them to fly over people if they meet certain safety thresholds. This is a major change from the current rules, which prohibit all flight by commercial drones over populated areas.
The report argues that drones that weigh 250 grams (about half a pound) or less should be allowed to fly with no restrictions, as they don't pose a serious risk. Drones that weigh four to five pounds, a class that includes most of the camera drones we review on The Verge, would be allowed to fly over populated areas and even over crowds, but would have to maintain a greater distance from people, staying at least twenty feet above or 10 feet away.
"The FAA chartered this committee to enable the tremendous benefits of drone technology while ensuring the safety of the skies and the general public," said Brendan Schulman, DJI’s vice president of policy and legal affairs. "We are pleased that the committee recommends a progressive approach that successfully balances these interests."
This is the second big set of recommendations from an FAA working group. The first, which dealt with how to register drones, was introduced November of 2015. A month later the FAA implemented rules that closely followed those suggestions. If that trend continues, we may be able to fly small drones over cities by this summer, a major shift from the current environment, in which all flight over populated areas is frowned upon by the FAA.
Amazon and Google could start testing in the US
The move to certify drones through collision testing is a shift from previous regulatory approaches, and is unlikely to please big tech companies like Amazon and Google, which have been calling for a move to a performance-based framework that would allow them to innovate towards a concrete safety standard. While these companies have built some of the most advanced drone-delivery technology, so far they haven't been able to test it inside the US, much less deploy it to the public.
The ability to fly small drones over crowds also opens the door for news agencies to begin putting drones to work during concerts or sporting events, and even to fly over protests or riots. That would enable them to replace news choppers with aircraft that cost a fraction of the price per flight.