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An Amazon delivery drone. (Photo Credit: Amazon)

The Federal Aviation Administration this morning issued its final rules for the commercial operation of small unmanned aircraft, better known as drones, limiting flights to the visual line of sight of the operator, prohibiting flights over people not involved in the drone operation, and mandating that no pilot can operate more than one drone at a time.

FAA Administrator Michael Huerta
FAA Administrator Michael Huerta

In short, the rules as written are a blow to Amazon’s ambitions to deliver small packages via drone, via its Prime Air initiative. However, the FAA says most of the rules can be waived through an application process “if the applicant demonstrates that his or her operation can safely be conducted under the terms of a certificate of waiver.”

On a conference call with reporters, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said the maximum weight of 55 pounds, maximum speed of 87 knots and altitude of 400 feet would not be eligible to be waived through that process. But the waivers could apply to the rules requiring visual line of sight, preventing flights over people and the operation of multiple aircraft. “If they can demonstrate capability and safety, we would consider waiving that,” said Huerta.

Asked specifically about the possibility for drone delivery, Huerta said, “We have a lot of research and pathfinder activities that are under way. This department is working cooperatively with industry, and as part of our staged integration process, we certainly see the benefit of this. What we need is to ensure that it can be safely done, and that the questions of a technological and other nature that we have to explore, that we have good answers to them. So it’s a very active research program of the department. I’m not going to speculate on a specific timetable for that.”

When the FAA released similar draft regulations in February 2015, Amazon wrote in a letter that the rules would keep Amazon from running its Amazon Prime Air drone delivery service. The future project would involve using drones to deliver small packages with turnarounds under 30 minutes. The company has warned that it will shift its drone delivery initiatives overseas if the U.S. rules are too burdensome.

Though these are a final set of regulations, many expect this to be the beginning, rather than the end, of a debate over how to regulate drones. According to the Wall Street Journal, regulators eventually want to let some drones fly at night and over densely-populated areas, the kind of changes that would be needed to make Prime Air possible. But regulators are well behind the industry in terms of technology, and it could take until the end of the decade for them to catch up.

Update, 8:50 p.m. Kara Calvert, Director of the Drone Manufacturers Alliance — including 3DR, DJI, GoPro and Parrot — issued this statement.

“We applaud the Federal Aviation Administration for finalizing a rule that will provide immense benefits to the country by opening American airspace for safe, responsible use of small unmanned aircraft. We are extremely pleased the rule establishes a risk-based, federal approach for operating drones nationwide, and thank the FAA for engaging industry throughout the process. We believe the rule will enhance safety and compliance, and allow a spectrum of industries to utilize drones to save lives, time and expense.

“We look forward to working with the FAA as this rule is implemented, and on next steps for recognizing a set of rules for a micro category of UAS, and for beyond the line of sight and nighttime operations.”

The Consumer Technology Association said in a statement, “We’re pleased to see the FAA strike an appropriate balance of innovation and safety in its authorization for commercial drones and recognition of the value this rapidly-evolving technology offers. This is a critical milestone toward the safe integration of drones into the national airspace system – and a far better approach than the current exemption-based system – but clearly additional steps are needed such as addressing ‘beyond-line-of-sight’ operations, which will be a true game changer.”


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