We previously discussed the new rules for drone operation which the FAA had been considering and at the time I wasn’t terribly impressed. Those new rules were finalized and they went into effect today, primarily as they affect commercial drone operation. The reactions thus far are mixed, but I’ll confess that it’s not quite as bad as I’d first imagined and it really could have been worse. (CNBC)

New rules by the U.S. Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) go into effect Monday, clarifying what is acceptable commercial usage of small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), also known as drones.

Commercial drones must weigh less than 55 pounds, fly up to a maximum of 400 feet in altitude, at a speed of no more than 100 miles per hour, and can only be operated during daytime and up to 30 minutes before sunrise and after sunset, according to the FAA rules. Drone operators must also qualify for flying certificates and be at least 16 years old.

Previously, drone operators had to apply for special waivers from the FAA—a time-consuming and pricey process—to use UAVs for business.

We’re dealing with two very different areas of drone use here and it’s important to make that distinction. The commercial potential for using these UAVs may be significant, though there are obvious concerns with any new technology. In the proper hands a sufficiently powerful and equipped drone will be able to deliver packages faster than ever before without clogging up the roadways. There are any number of aerial surveillance tasks which could be undertaken more quickly and cheaply as well. It’s an extensive list of potential benefits and the FAA, to their credit, seems to be easing the path toward such progress, albeit slowly. Removing the need for a commercial pilot’s license and replacing it with a lower skill level certificate specific to the craft being used was a no-brainer and they managed that much. The daylight only restriction may seem burdensome, but except for infrared gear there’s not much camera work to be done at night anyway. Also, the majority of deliveries are done during the day. These portions aren’t too oppressive.

But the line of sight limit along with the maximum weight allowance is troubling. This was pointed out in the Washington Post editorial board review of the new rules.

Yet the new rules are still quite restrictive, particularly the requirement that operators keep drones within their line of sight. This makes sense for unsophisticated drones that require pilots’ constant attention. But it also limits companies from putting drones to many valuable uses, unless they get a special waiver. Amazon.com — whose chief executive, Jeffrey P. Bezos, owns The Post — wants to use custom-built drones to deliver orders within half an hour. But there are a variety of other, less-heralded possibilities: Drones fitted with hazard-avoidance technology, advanced communications systems and other equipment could also scan electrical wires for damage, conduct search-and-rescue operations, collect news and, no doubt, do dozens of other things no one has thought of yet. As long as commercial drones have to stay within a pilot’s line of sight — and, indeed, have a dedicated pilot — their range and usefulness will be limited.

Describing their use as “limited” for both deliveries and aerial reconnaissance is being generous with these limitations. It’s true that operators will be able to apply for an exemption, but a delivery vehicle which can’t leave the sight of the operator is essentially useless. So too for search and rescue operations or damage assessment. If you’re making the operator travel to the target area themselves then they don’t really need the drone. As far as deliveries go, a maximum drone weight of 55 pounds is really going to limit how much cargo it can carry. But, again, half a loaf is better than none.

The second issue which I’ll leave for another day is private operation. For individual operators, the temptation toward invasion of privacy will simply be too great for some people and we’ll have a whole new class of crimes for already overwhelmed law enforcement agencies to deal with. We’ll need to tackle that problem in the near future as well.

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