The rules regarding flying drones in the United States have been greatly relaxed, paving the way for thousands of businesses to fly legally in the country’s airspace.
Existing Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) rules had meant commercial operators needed a pilot’s license in order to fly even small drones – a stipulation industry advocates said was unnecessarily restrictive.
In addition to the license, commercial drone operators had to apply to the FAA on a case-by-case basis to gain permission. To date, only 5,300 commercial applicants were successful in gaining permission from the FAA, a tiny fraction of drones owned in the US.
Critics of the old system said the process was too cumbersome and expensive.
From August, commercial drone operators will be able to fly by meeting much simpler criteria.
“We are part of a new era in aviation, and the potential for unmanned aircraft will make it safer and easier to do certain jobs, gather information, and deploy disaster relief,” said US transportation secretary Anthony Foxx.
“We look forward to working with the aviation community to support innovation, while maintaining our standards as the safest and most complex airspace in the world.”
The changes have been enthusiastically welcomed by the drone industry, but others have concerns over how the rules will be enforced.
The regulations state that commercial drones can be flown as long as the pilot is over the age of 16, has the drone in his or her line of sight, and does not elevate to over 400 feet above ground level.
Daylight and twilight flying will be allowed only if the drone has lights that can be seen more than three miles away.
The drones must weigh less than 55 pounds (25kg), and pilots must pass an aeronautics safety test at least once every 24 months.
Night-time flying is not allowed under the new rules. But the FAA said it would set up an online portal for people to submit requests for drone use that goes beyond the rules set out on Tuesday.
If proposed use is deemed appropriate and safe, operators will be able to fly in ways that are not initially permitted.
The FAA said it would provide all drone owners with “privacy guidelines” for drone use.
Companies like Amazon and Walmart have expressed interest in using drones for deliveries, but the FAA said that idea remains for now off limits while more research is conducted.
“It has really brought down the barriers of entry for the masses,” said Matthew Grosack, an attorney for law firm DLA Piper.
Mr Grosack has followed the legal issues around drone use closely, a sector that provides rich pickings for new legal arguments.
For example, an ongoing case in Kentucky is pondering vertical property ownership. How high off the ground do you need to go before it is no longer considered your land? Does the FAA have the right to govern what you fly in your back garden?
“I only think those tensions are going to rise now that this technology becomes more available for commercial purposes,” Mr Grosack told the Amira News.
Last year, California lawmakers had hoped to pass a bill that allowed emergency services to disable drones that were interfering with rescue or law enforcement efforts. The bill failed – California state governor Jerry Brown vetoed it on the basis he did not want to “create new crimes” and that existing rules should be used to curb dangerous drone use.
While states across the US may seek to impose their own rules on drone use, Mr Grosack said a unified approach was key.
“They understand that this patchwork quilt of state and local laws that are developing are not good for the industry, and it’s definitely not good for airspace safety.
“You don’t want inconsistent rules from state to state when it comes to safety.”
The new rules do not affect people who use drones as a hobby – a detail which troubles members of the Air Line Pilots Association, a group which represents more than 50,000 pilots.
“It is essential that all rules developed to promote the safe operation of unmanned aircraft systems must be consistent with and compatible with those for all other airspace users,” the ALPA shared in a statement.
“Recreational users make up the bulk of UAS flyers,” it added.
“Yet they are virtually unregulated due to legislative conditions placed on the FAA.”
Compared to other markets, US legislators have been somewhat slow to draw up modern rules that take into account the advancements in technology.
The FAA rules are similar to those implemented by the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). The CAA’s rules put in place in April this year also impose a 400 foot height limit and the necessity for line-of-sight control.
While the FAA’s rules have no impact on airspace beyond US control, industry insiders predict a flood of drone-related businesses to now take shape in the US.
“I think it’s going to make the US way more globally competitive as far as attracting people who want to get involved in this industry,” said Mr Grosack.
“You’re going to see a lot of businesses that may have taken their drone business abroad to consider coming back.”
DJI, a major manufacturer of drones, called the FAA’s announcement a “milestone”.
“The new rules codify common sense, making it easier for a farmer to fly a drone over his fields, for a contractor to inspect property without climbing a ladder, and for a rescue service to use drones to save lives,” the company said on Tuesday.
“There is more work ahead, and DJI thanks the FAA for encouraging the development of transformative aerial technology while ensuring the safety of those on the ground and in the air.”