FAA writing rules for commercial drone flights over people

AP News
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Posted: Apr 06, 2016 5:37 PM

WASHINGTON (AP) — Federal aviation officials said Wednesday they will work quickly on regulations that would permit small, commercial drones to fly over people and crowds.

The Federal Aviation Administration currently prohibits most commercial use of drones over people. Recommendations from an industry advisory committee, as first reported by The Associated Press over the weekend, would create four categories of commercial drones. Drones weighing about a half-pound or less would be allowed to fly over people virtually without restriction.

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.

The FAA has worked for years on rules to give commercial operators of small drones — defined as weighing 55 pounds or less — greater access to fly without going through the current case-by-case approval process. Those rules, probably coming this summer, are expected to prohibit flights over populated areas, especially crowds. That could prevent their use for tasks ranging from inspecting cellphone towers to news reporting.

In February, the FAA established a 27-member committee of drone manufacturers, companies that want to use drones and more traditional aviation interests such as airline pilots and airports. Their mission: develop rules that would permit flights over people.

Earl Lawrence, the head of FAA's drone office, and Nancy Egan, general counsel for 3D Robotics, a drone technology company, told reporters in a conference call that there was broad consensus among the committee members in support of the recommendations.

At least one organization that served on the committee, the Academy of Model Aeronautics, which represents drone hobbyists, said the recommendations, if followed, could provoke a public backlash.

"We are concerned that allowing some unmanned aircraft to operate over and within close proximity to people will heighten the anxiety of a society that is already hypersensitive to the introduction of 'drones' into our communities," the academy's executive director, Dave Mathewson, said in a statement.

Some committee members representing airline pilots, crop dusters and other traditional aviation interests also wanted operators of drones of all sizes — including those weighing as little as a half-pound — to be required to take an FAA aviation knowledge test in-person and to receive a Transportation Security Administration security background check.

Most on the committee felt those requirements were too burdensome for drones "the size of a cellphone" and would discourage their use, Egan said. Instead, the committee recommended that operators have to pass an online test. Those who disagreed were allowed to include a dissent in the committee's report to the FAA.

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