The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in the US has announced the creation of a new category of aviation rules designed specifically for drones weighing less than 25 kg (55 pounds). The long-anticipated rules mean commercial operators can now fly drones without special permission. The use of commercial drones has been described as the biggest game-changing technology in aviation since the advent of the jet engine.
The new rules are the first step toward full integration of drones in the US national airspace system. Until now, commercial drone operators have had to apply for a waiver from the FAA, a process that was time-consuming and expensive. The FAA has already granted more than 6,100 waivers, but another 7,600 are waiting for approval.
Many small companies have been using drones without FAA permission, and unless operators make a serious mistake, there’s not a lot the agency can do to track them down. The new rules now provide an easier way for those businesses to operate legally.
Under the new rules, operators register their drones online, pass an aviation knowledge exam for drone pilots at an FAA-approved testing centre, and then they’re good to go.
This is not dissimilar to the way the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority regulates commercial drone operators, where those with an approved drone pilot certification (such as the BNUC-S) can apply for a Permission For Aerial Work (P-FAW) from the CAA, valid for up to a year.
US operators now have to follow many of the rules that apply to model aircraft hobbyists, like keeping drones within sight at all times and not flying over people, or higher than 400 feet. For now, drone flights are permitted only during daylight hours and at twilight.
Drone industry officials have long complained that restricting drone flights to daytime precluded a great many uses like some search and rescue operations and roof inspections of commercial building roofs that use heat sensors. Operators are still able to seek waivers to restrictions like nighttime flights though.
The rules even permit commercial transport of goods by drones for the first time, but the other restrictions on flights beyond sight of the operator and over people still apply.
Aviation authorities around the world are now accepting that drones are here to stay, and their use needs to be integrated into airspace regulations in a way that ensures safety, whilst opening up new business opportunities.
It remains to be seen if the Government here will now embrace the commercial potential of drones rather than retaining unnecessarily restrictive and cumbersome rules on their use in Hong Kong.