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Drones: New rules could soon allow flights over people and at night

Delivery drones took another step closer to becoming a reality this week after the U.S. government unveiled a set of proposals that would allow the machines to fly over populated areas and also at night.

Amazon and Google, among others, have for several years been investing much time and money in developing delivery drone systems, but strict safety-related flight limitations imposed by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) have prevented such services from launching. But that could be about to change.

In a speech in Washington, D.C. on Monday, January 14, U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao outlined the proposed measures, which offer more possibilities to businesses looking to use the technology for commercial purposes, Reuters reported.

Current rules prohibit drone flights over urban areas in case the flying machine malfunctions or hits an obstacle and falls from the sky, risking injury to people on the ground. But the FAA now suggests permitting pilots to operate small unmanned aircraft weighing up to 0.55 pounds (0.25 kg) over populated areas unrestricted. Larger machines, meanwhile, would require the manufacturer to show that if it collided with a person, “the resulting injury would be below a certain severity threshold.” The FAA suggests placing protective cages around the propellers for extra safety, though other innovations are encouraged, which could see drones equipped with features such as such as parachutes.

The FAA would, however, continue to prohibit the operation of large drones over a large crowd of people.

Night flights

The document also proposes an end to rules that require drone operators to apply for waivers to fly their machine at night, with the FAA noting that no drone accidents were reported in connection with 1,233 waivers issued in 2017. But certain conditions would still have to be met by a drone pilot before they sent their machine skyward at night. For example, the pilot would require special training for flights in the dark, and the drone would have to be equipped with a light visible for “at least three statute miles.”

Chao said that while she was “keenly aware [of] legitimate public concerns about drones, concerning safety, security, and privacy,” the government wanted to “balance the need to mitigate the risk small unmanned aircraft pose to other aircraft and to people and property on the ground without inhibiting innovation.”

She added that the proposed rules had the potential to “help communities reap the considerable economic benefits of this growing industry and help our country remain a global technology leader.”

For commercial operators looking to use drones in urban settings or at night, the proposals are certainly a step in the right direction, but those eager to launch delivery services will have to continue to wait for permission to fly the machines out of sight of the operator, or whoever is monitoring the autonomous delivery drone. There’s good news on that front, though, as the FAA also announced a program aimed at further integrating drones into airspace used by manned aircraft. The program, which builds on previous NASA-led efforts, will operate this year and explore areas such as flight planning, communications, aircraft separation, and weather services for drone flights under 400 feet.

The next step for the proposal document will be publication in the federal register where businesses and members of the public can offer comments on it during a 60-day period.

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