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The FAA says it’s a new dawn for commercial drone ventures. (Credit: FAA via Twitter)

More than 3,000 people signed up today to get certified as commercial drone pilots under new regulations, and there’ll be more to come, the head of the Federal Aviation Administration said during a kickoff news briefing in Washington, D.C.

FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said his agency already has issued 76 waivers that allow commercial ventures to go beyond the now-standard rules, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said. Almost all of those waivers give the go-ahead for flying drones at night, he said. CNN has gotten clearance for flying drones over people, while BNSF Railway will be allowed to fly drones beyond an operator’s visual line of sight.

The FAA’s new regulations for small drones, also known as unmanned aircraft systems or UAS, generally rule out night flying, flights over uninvolved people, or flights beyond the line of sight. But Huerta said the ventures that received waivers have laid out extra measures to ensure safe operation under those conditions.

The new regulations, known as Part 107, were issued in June but didn’t take effect until today. They replace a case-by-case regulatory system for drones weighing less than 55 pounds – a system that relied on individually issued Section 333 exemptions.

Part 107 doesn’t go as far as Amazon and other would-be delivery drone operators might have liked, but Huerta made clear that the regulations will evolve. For example, he expected the FAA to issue rules that allow flights over people by the end of the year.

“There will be a lot of key steps forward,” Huerta said.

The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International projects that the commercial drone industry will create more than 100,000 jobs and generate more than $82 billion in economic activity over the next decade.

“The United States has been a pioneer in aviation since the Wright Brothers first took to the skies more than 100 years ago, and throughout that period there have been many, many milestones,” AUVSI’s president and CEO, Brian Wynne, said at today’s briefing. “Today we’ve reached another significant milestone. With the small UAS rule now in effect, the commercial UAS industry is cleared for takeoff.”

Commercial drone ventures already have gotten started under the old case-by-case system, but the industry expects that the pace will accelerate now that the new rules are in effect. “This rule now sets forth the rules of engagement,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said.

Huerta said 530,000 drone operators have registered since a signup system went into effect last December. Tens of thousands of those operators are expected to apply for commercial certification.

The process is similar to the written test for a driver’s license: Would-be pilots study up on the requirements, the rules of the aerial road and general knowledge about aviation. Then they take a test at one of the more than 680 commercial centers approved to give it.

Twenty-five centers are located in Washington state, but there’s only one listed in Seattle: Galvin Flight Training. As of this afternoon, nine people came in to take the test, a receptionist at Galvin told GeekWire.

Some of the questions can get technical, based on a sample test provided by the FAA. For example, one question shows you a flight chart and asks you, “What is the floor of the Savannah Class C airspace at the shelf area (outer circle)?”

If you pass the test and fill out the proper forms, you’ll eventually get the required certificate. “Many people signed up to take the test today, so they should get their certificates pretty quickly,” FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown told GeekWire via email.

What will those drone pilots do? Foxx laid out a litany of potential applications, including aerial photography, crop monitoring, oil-rig and pipeline inspection, infrastructure monitoring, educational outreach and scientific studies. Huerta said he expected more than 600,000 unmanned aircraft systems to come into commercial use over the next year.

AUVSI said it examined more than 5,500 Section 333 exemptions issued by the FAA, and found that aerial photography was the most popular application listed, followed by real estate and aerial inspection. The analysis suggested that about 90 percent of the operators were small businesses with less than $1 million in annual revenue and fewer than 10 employees.

California was the most active state for drone ventures, with 639 exemptions. Washington state was No. 14 on the list, with 140 exemptions.

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