New Batch of Drone Rules May Soon Allow Flying Over Crowds

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Unmanned delivery drones are one step closer to reality. The federal government on Monday released a set of proposals that could see civilian drones fly over crowds, and end the need for permits for night flights.

Currently, the Federal Aviation Administration rules that civilian drones can’t be flown over people, lest they fall out of the sky and injure unsuspecting people below. That makes it difficult to use unmanned drones for various commercial purposes, including surveying construction sites, making deliveries, and capturing footage of urban areas for TV networks.

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The proposal, which was announced by Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao in Washington, is meant to spur innovative commercial uses for drones.

“This will help communities reap the considerable economic benefits of this growing industry and help our country remain a global technology leader,” Chao said in her speech.

When it comes to flights over people, the FAA is suggesting three regulatory categories based on drone weight. Small drones weighing about a half pound would be considered low-risk and would require no restrictions. Meanwhile, drones exceeding a half pound would have to be designed in a way that they wouldn’t cause severe injuries if they struck a person. For example, the drones in this category wouldn’t be allowed to have open rotor blades—‘cause you know, lacerating people upon impact would be horrifying. Drones capable of causing significant injuries would be allowed to fly over people under certain circumstances, not including open-air assemblies.

Up until now, night flights have been allowed if operators had obtained permits. The proposal would do away with the need for permits, provided special testing or training had been completed. The drones would also have to be equipped with special lighting with visibility for three miles.

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While the proposals certainly would expand use cases for drones, other, currently-in-place restrictions aren’t going anywhere. Drones will still have remain in sight of an operator, away from airports, and below 400 feet. The FAA is asking for public and industry input on crafting new drone restrictions. It’s also proposing licensed civilian operators receive training every two years.

Still, don’t count on seeing hordes of unmanned drones overhead anytime soon. Bloomberg notes that a separate set of FAA proposals involving drone identification and tracking isn’t expected until May, which means it could be 2020 before we see widespread flights over people.

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[Bloomberg, Reuters]

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About the author

Victoria Song

Consumer tech reporter by day, danger noodle by night. No, I'm not the K-Pop star.