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Photographer Chase Jarvis with a drone at Gas Works Park in Seattle.
Photographer Chase Jarvis with a drone at Gas Works Park in Seattle.

Drones should face the equivalent of crash-test dummies to gauge how safe they are for flying around people, a panel appointed by the Federal Aviation Administration said in a report released today.

The recommendations from the Micro UAS Aviation Rulemaking Committee laid out a wide range of conditions for letting drones, also known as unmanned aircraft systems, fly close to the uninvolved public. Such flights are not allowed under a different set of regulations that are due for release within the next few months.

The committee, which includes industry representatives and other stakeholders, finished its report in less than a month. “We commend the committee members for their sincere dedication and for producing a comprehensive report in such a short time,” FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said in a statement.

In their report, the committee said the overflight restrictions needn’t apply to drones that weigh less than 250 grams (9 ounces). That’s because experts determined that those toy-size drones had less than a 1 percent chance of causing serious injury in a collision.

For bigger drones, in a category that goes up to 55 pounds in weight, there’s be a 20-foot overflight limit. “If you’re flying over people at all, you must stay 20 feet over their heads,” committee co-chair Nancy Egan, general counsel for 3D Robotics, told reporters during a telephone briefing on the report.

The drones also would have to stay 10 feet away from uninvolved people in a lateral direction.

The manufacturers of such drones would have to certify to the FAA that their products posed less than a 1 percent chance of injury, based on the results of crash tests, said co-chair Earl Lawrence, director of the FAA’s Unmanned Systems Integration Office.

“Picture a UAS being slammed into a plate that has sensors in it,” Lawrence said.

He said the impact standard would be defined in terms of joules per square centimeter. That would account for the distributed effect of impact, differentiated in the same way that being hit by a baseball feels different from being hit by a soccer ball.

Different standards would apply for operating drones over closed or restricted areas – for example, on a movie set, or a construction site, or a farm field where workers are present. “We could have a higher chance of injury,” Lawrence said, and for that reason “this category would not be allowed to operate over crowds or concentrations of people.”

There’d be a process for allowing greater leeway if drone operators come up with an acceptable risk mitigation plan for a specific operation, Lawrence said.

The rules will address issues such as how drones are labeled, how instruction manuals are written, and how manufacturers design their drones to guard against injury from spinning propellers, Lawrence said.

Committee members also discussed the requirements for operating drones. For example, should operators be required to take an in-person test and go through a TSA background check? Most of the panelists thought that would be “unduly burdensome.” They favored online tests instead. However, some members – including representatives from the Air Line Pilots Association and the National Agricultural Aviation Association – insisted that in-person tests and background checks should be required.

The FAA will work with industry representatives to fill in the details and issue a notice of proposed rulemaking for drone flights over people. The process is expected to take longer than the one that resulted in a recreational drone registration system last year. “It will definitely not be in the next few months,” Lawrence said.

Meanwhile, the agency is closing in on the final rules for commercial operation of drones that weigh less than 55 pounds. Those rules are being anxiously awaited by companies such as Amazon, Walmart and Google, which have been working on drone-based package delivery systems. As it stands now, the rules wouldn’t allow for flights over crowds of people, or for flights beyond the operator’s line of sight, Lawrence pointed out.

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