FAA Opening Skies to Commercial Drone Use

AP/Gregory Bull
AP/Gregory Bull

Although the Federal Aviation Administration has not yet opened the skies completely to commercial drone use, it has opened the window a smidgeon. Bloomberg News reports that the FAA will permit commercial drones under 55 pounds to fly up to 500 feet above ground if flown during the day and within the view of their operators.

The FAA still won’t permit delivery drone flights of the kind executives at Amazon Inc., Google Inc., and Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. would like, even though the agency allows that business use of drones could create $100 million or more for the U.S. economy.

The FAA values one human life at $9.2 million—and thus figures the saving of one life would be more than the entire cost of the regulations—to society, according to the document. The FAA wants to allow drone flights to take the place of live inspectors for radio and telecommunications towers; 95 of those inspectors died between 2004 through 2012. Another area in which the FAA would prefer for drones to supplant workers is aerial photography; 19 people died in that field between 2005 through 2009. The FAA estimates roughly 45,000 annual bridge inspections could be conducted with small drones.

The new rule will not be implemented until after next September 30 and cannot be completely etched into stone until public comments have been received. The FAA will not require drone operators to obtain a traditional pilot’s license, but operators would have to pass a knowledge test every two years and register their drone with the FAA.

The FAA would forbid drone use over crowds but would permit use for aerial photography, agriculture, law enforcement, search-and-rescue, and inspections of bridges.

Micro drones, weighing under 4.4 pounds and comprised of soft materials, would be permitted; their owners would not need to pass a test. Hobbyists would have to stay away from traditional planes and helicopters, stay under 400 feet, and avoid unprotected people and property.