The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced over the weekend that it is proposing new rules to regulate the commercial use of unmanned flying drones. The devices, which have gained in popularity among consumers and are now being tested by companies in the logistics arena, would be allowed for commercial use once they meet the new rules. Currently, all commercial remote-controlled aircraft are banned in the U.S.
The FAA proposal lays out requirements that commercial operators must meet, such as passing a knowledge test administered by the FAA and a security check by the Transportation Safety Administration in order to fly small drones. It is likely to be two or three years before the rules are made final, but federal officials said that once they are in place the economic and safety benefits of unmanned aircraft could be huge. “We have tried to be flexible in writing these rules,” said FAA Administrator Michael Huerta. “We want to maintain today's outstanding level of aviation safety without placing an undue regulatory burden on an emerging industry.”
The regulations, though, also include provisions that could preclude delivery of items, which Amazon.com has said it is already testing. Under the FAA’s proposed safety rules, drones would have to remain within sight of operators at all times, not fly at all at night, and always stay at least five miles away from any airport. Such rules would clearly limit the ability of a company like Amazon to deliver packages via drone, a service that Amazon has been testing since 2013 with Amazon Prime Air service. So far, the e-commerce giant has been conducting tests at an indoor facility in Washington and has been pushing the FAA to allow it to do outdoor trials. At the end of last year, Amazon warned that “key jobs and economic benefits” were at risk if the FAA didn’t loosen its regulations.
In a rebuke to the FAA’s newest proposals, Amazon threatened to take the development of its drone capabilities overseas. “The FAA needs to begin and expeditiously complete the formal process to address the needs of our business, and ultimately our customers,” Paul Misener, Amazon’s vice-president of global public policy, said yesterday. “We are committed to realizing our vision for Prime Air and are prepared to deploy where we have the regulatory support we need.”
Amazon, though, isn’t the only company that is trying to develop drone delivery capabilities. Chinese e-commerce company Alibaba said it tested drone deliveries earlier this year, and Germany-based Deutsche Post DHL has said it was doing the same. The FAA and the White House, though, believe that commercial drone flights will need to be closely regulated. They will now hear public comments on the issue, and they left open the possibility that very small drones (those less than five pounds) could be regulated with much looser rules.