FAA plan would bar delivery by drone, “micro drone” rule possible

The troubled skies over the U.S. drone industry cleared a bit on Sunday, as the Federal Aviation Administration proposed a new plan to speed up the integration of unmanned aircraft into the American economy — though the likes of Amazon and Google, which are planning delivery services, could be left in the cold.

In a news release and related press conference, the FAA proposed rules that would let companies operate drones under certain certain conditions that include:

  • Drones can only be flown in daylight hours and within the direct line of site of the operator
  • Operators must be at least 17 years old, pass an aeronautical knowledge test and obtain an FAA UAS operator certificate
  • Drones must be under 55 pounds, can’t fly higher than 500 feet or faster than 100 mph, and can’t fly over people
  • Drones can’t allow “any object to be dropped” — which would seem to kibosh Amazon’s plans for an airborne delivery service

It’s important to note that these rules are just a proposal, and are subject to a 60-day public comment process, which means the rules wouldn’t go into effect until 2016 at the earliest.

Drone experts are pleased that the long-overdue rules are moving forward. Many in the industry, however, are likely to be frustrated by the proposed line-of-sight rule, which could preclude long distance flights, and restrict the use of the drone’s remote cameras for search-and-rescue and other operations.

One bright spot in the rules, though, is the FAA’s nod to so-called “micro drone” regulations of the sort proposed last summer by lawyer Brendan Schulman:

“The proposed rule also includes extensive discussion of the possibility of an additional, more flexible framework for “micro” UAS under 4.4 pounds,” said the news release, which also alluded to the creation of special drone “innovation zones.”

If the “micro drone” plan goes forward, it could open a window for the likes of Amazon and Google to use devices under 4.4 pounds to go forward with their drone delivery ambitions.

Meanwhile, the new announcement does not affect current policy on drone use by hobbyists, whose antics — including crashing their machines on the White House lawn and into a Yellowstone geyser — have made unmanned aircraft a high-profile issue.

As for commercial use, companies will for now continue to have to seek waivers from the FAA. Currently, only a handful of such waivers, which come with onerous restrictions, have been granted — even as other countries, like France (where the post office is testing delivery drones) and Canada, are supporting wave of new drone-based industries.

An FAA spokesperson said by phone that the odd timing of the release (on a Sunday morning of a long weekend) was related to a leak on Friday of an internal agency study that suggested drones could offer significant benefits to the U.S. economy.

Meanwhile, the White House also put out an executive order today to promote responsible drone use.