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DJI Phantom drone
A DJI Phantom drone. (Xray40000 Photo via Flickr)

The Federal Aviation Administration has issued draft regulations that would smooth the way for drones to fly at night and over groups of innocent bystanders.

Such operations are already technically allowed, but only with a waiver or an exemption. If the proposed regulations go into effect, drone flights at night and over people could become more routine.

Looser limits could also bring America closer to the day when companies such as Amazon and Walmart routinely deliver shipments via drone.

Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao highlighted the proposed regulations on Monday during remarks to the Transportation Research Board’s annual meeting in Washington, D.C., which proceeded despite the partial government shutdown.

Chao said the easing of limits on drone flights “will help communities reap the considerable economic benefits of this growing industry and help our country remain a global technology leader.”

Flights at night would be allowed without a waiver, as long as the drone operator has received appropriate training and has fulfilled testing requirements. The drones would also have to be equipped with hazard lights designed to be visible from a distance of 3 miles.

To address the potential hazards posed by drone flights over the uninvolved public, the FAA proposes setting up three risk categories, based on how the drone is built:

  • Category 1: Any drones weighing less than 0.55 pounds could be flown routinely over people. The cargo being carried by a drone would count against that weight restriction, however.
  • Category 2: In order to fly over the uninvolved public without special conditions, drones weighing more than 0.55 pounds would have to be certified by their manufacturer to show that they would pack no more of a punch than 11 foot-pounds if they were to hit somebody, and that a person’s skin couldn’t be cut by sharp edges in the event of a collision. The 11-foot-pound standard comes from the FAA’s safety rules for flying debris from rocket launches.
  • Category 3: A drone that’s too weighty or too powerful to fit under Category 2 could still fly over people without a waiver, as long as its kinetic energy in a collision is less than 25 foot-pounds. For Category 3 operations, however, the people in the drone zone would have to be told about the risk. Also, the drone would be barred from hovering over people or flying over open-air assemblies — unless, of course, a waiver is issued.

The full details are laid out in a draft document posted to the FAA’s website. The timetable for public comment, hearings and implementation hasn’t yet been announced, most likely because of the shutdown.

Chao said the FAA will seek additional input on ways to address the threats that drones could pose to other aircraft, people on the ground or national security.

She referred indirectly to the problems recently encountered by British airports due to unauthorized drone flights. “Recent events overseas have underscored concerns about the potential for drones to disrupt aviation and the national airspace,” Chao said.

Once the FAA’s draft proposal is published in the Federal Register, interested parties will have 60 days to provide comments and recommendations.

The U.S. Department of Transportation also authorized three commercial service providers to manage drone air traffic under the terms of a pilot program set up last year, involving 10 projects across the country. The drone traffic management systems will be complementary to the FAA’s traditional air traffic management system.

The three providers are the Northern Plains Unmanned Aircraft Systems Test Site, the Nevada UAS Test Site and the Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership.

At the end of Monday’s talk, Chao touched on two other big issues for the Department of Transportation: self-driving cars and commercial spaceflight.

She noted with approval that nine companies have issued voluntary safety self-assessment disclosures: Ford, GM, Mercedes-Benz/Bosch, Nuro, Nvidia, Starsky Robotics, Uber, Waymo and Zoox.

Self-driving cars have the potential to increase safety and reduce traffic death tolls, which amounted to more than 37,000 lives lost in 2017. Chao noted that the automotive and computer industry are spending billions of dollars a year on technologies for autonomous vehicles.

“With these rapid developments, however, it is even more important that automated vehicle manufacturers put safety first and embrace transparency, which will build consumer trust,” she said.

She said the department would soon issue “an exciting announcement” about the applications of autonomous technology across many modes of transportation.

Chao also said her department is “on track” to publish a complete overhaul of its regulations on commercial space launches by February, as directed by the National Space Council.

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