Delivery Drones at Last? FAA Contemplates Relaxing "Line of Sight" Rule

Illustration for article titled Delivery Drones at Last? FAA Contemplates Relaxing Line of Sight Rule

Many drone businesses—like aerial pizza delivery!—don’t make sense when FAA rules require that humans have a clear line of sight to an aircraft. But the FAA’s drone boss just told us that naked eyes won’t always be a requirement.

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Illustration for article titled Delivery Drones at Last? FAA Contemplates Relaxing Line of Sight Rule

Jim Williams leads the FAA office in charge of integrating unmanned aerial vehicles into US airspace, and he came to the Drones, Data X conference in Santa Cruz today with a message: the FAA is working as fast as it can to enable legitimate drone uses—as long as it can keep people safe. Primarily, the FAA cares “if you can see your aircraft, if you can see other aircraft, and you can get out of the way,” says Williams.

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And while right now, “seeing your aircraft” means seeing it with the naked eye, Williams tells Gizmodo that future first-person view (FPV) goggles could be a possibility too. Right now, Williams explains, FPV goggles narrow your field of view, removing your peripheral vision, and so the FAA doesn’t consider them equivalent to being inside the cockpit of an airplane or keeping an eye on your drone from the ground. But he says the FAA might approve a newer FPV system with a much wider field of view—if a company tried to get one approved.

Illustration for article titled Delivery Drones at Last? FAA Contemplates Relaxing Line of Sight Rule

A set of FatShark FPV goggles with a pretty narrow field of view.

Besides, he says, there are technologies on the horizon that could let drones keep themselves in check, automatically sensing and avoiding collisions. “Sensor technology, as it develops, will eventually be able to deliver an equivalent level of safety [to line-of-sight operations],” predicts Williams.

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“We understand there’s a lot of value in flying beyond visual line of sight, and that’s an area we hope to move on rapidly in the next few years,” he says.

Either way, it’s going to be a while before the FAA’s proposed drone rules take effect. Williams says it typically takes about 16 months starting at this point in the process. “We’re going to do everything we can to beat that 16 month timeframe.”

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Contact the author at sean.hollister@gizmodo.com.

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DISCUSSION

Neat.

I can see an explosion of advancements in the coming years in UAVs, but I think the real applications are going to be in surveys, agriculture and photography, not the magical burrito deliveries that are neither efficient nor safe with our current technology.

I’d also like the FAA to be keeping a tight rope on drones until we can properly work them into our airspace. Still too many Phantom drivers flying into approach paths and claiming ignorance.