When the FAA originally attempted to deal with the advent of drone technology more than a year ago, they placed so many restrictions on operating the unmanned aircraft that they would prove essentially useless in many applications. While safety – particularly potential threats to conventional aircraft – was a priority, the FAA seemed to go much too far in restricting the process. Burdensome registration requirements were eventually dropped, but there were still restrictions on not only where and when drones could fly, but how far they could be from the operator. Those rules have been suspended in cases of emergencies and natural disasters, but it requires federal approval.

Now that may be changing. In upstate New York, a fifty-mile corridor of airspace is being established near the site of a former military base where drones and pilots will be trained, tested and evaluated. Hopefully, the results of this study and others in several other states will lead to some common sense in the regulatory environment. (Associated Press)

Envisioning a day when millions of drones will buzz around delivering packages, watching crops or inspecting pipelines, a coalition is creating an airspace corridor in upstate New York where traffic management systems will be developed and unmanned aircraft can undergo safety and performance testing.

The unmanned aircraft traffic management corridor, jump-started by a $30 million state investment, will extend 50 miles (80 kilometers) west over mostly rural farmland from Griffiss International Airport, a former Air Force base in Rome that is already home to NASA-affiliated drone testing. It will be equipped with radar and ground-based sensors to enable what Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo boasted would be “the most advanced drone testing in the country.”

The first segment of the corridor was launched last month by the Northeast UAS Airspace Integration Research Alliance, a coalition of private and public entities and academic institutions in New York and Massachusetts created to establish Griffiss as a drone industry incubator.

The airport is one of seven places around the country designated by the Federal Aviation Administration as an unmanned aircraft systems test site. Other sites are in Virginia, North Dakota, New Mexico, Texas, Nevada and Alaska.

There was a need for a testing area this large because of one of the worst aspects of the initial FAA regulations. Drones were not supposed to be operated out of the line of sight of the operator except in emergencies. This rendered them effectively useless for all but the most trivial activities of hobbyists. What’s the point in sending a drone out to deliver something or record data if you have to send a human along for the entire trip? With luck, the results of this testing phase will address that question.

Meanwhile, new uses for drone technology have been cropping up all over the world. In Europe they are already deploying drones at beaches so they can be used to save people from drowning. This brief video from Vocativ provides a demonstration of how a lifeguard/monitor at a beach can spot a struggling swimmer and send a drone out to drop a life preserver to them far faster than any human could swim out to render assistance. The drone also has a camera and can monitor the person in need of assistance as well as helping to guide the lifeguard to the victim.

In Texas, following Hurricane Harvey, insurance companies received permission to use drones to begin surveying damage and processing claims for homeowners long before it was safe to send people in to do inspections. This not only kept the company’s employees safe, but reduced congestion on the already blocked roads so first responders could get in and out to do their jobs.

This technology is advancing rapidly. Unfortunately, it appears to be outstripping the pace of our government in keeping up with it. But the testing currently kicking off in more than half a dozen states may go some ways toward catching up. Now if we can just figure out how to keep private drones from peering into your bedrooms we’ll be all set.