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The FAA Just Made Delivery by Drone a Whole Lot Harder

Last Sunday, the day after Valentine’s Day, the Federal Aviation Administration released a lengthy (and totally not sexy) report detailing the proposed rules that will likely govern any unmanned aircraft system (UAV), or drone, flown for non-hobby or non-recreational purposes — something like Amazon’s drone delivery hopes.

In short, the drone delivery business just got a whole lot harder.

The drone revolution is here — the FAA knows that — and the news rules covering everything from delivery businesses to aerial photography to search and rescue operations deal mainly with safety and certifications. Almost so much so that it might be impossible to start a drone-based business. For now.

Here are a few of the major rules governing drone flight from the proposal:

General Rules:

— Unmanned aircraft must weigh less than 55 lbs. (25 kg).

— At all times the small unmanned aircraft must remain close enough to the operator for the operator to be capable of seeing the aircraft with vision unaided by any device other than corrective lenses.

— Small unmanned aircraft may not operate over any persons not directly involved in the operation.

— Daylight-only operations (official sunrise to official sunset, local time).

— Maximum airspeed of 100 mph (87 knots).

— Maximum altitude of 500 feet above ground level.

And then there are the rules for drone pilots:

Operator Requirements:

— Pass an initial aeronautical knowledge test at an FAA-approved knowledge testing center.

— Be vetted by the Transportation Security Administration.

— Obtain an unmanned aircraft operator certificate with a small UAS rating (like existing pilot airman certificates, never expires).

— Pass a recurrent aeronautical knowledge test every 24 months.

— Be at least 17 years old.

— Make available to the FAA, upon request, the small UAS for inspection or testing, and any associated documents/records required to be kept under the proposed rule.

— Report an accident to the FAA within 10 days of any operation that results in injury or property damage.

The report also considers a “micro UAS” classification, which would cover operation of drones weighing no more than 4.4 pounds (2 kilograms). These smaller drones wouldn’t be able to fly as high or fly autonomously, but they would be able to fly with an operator self-certification only and could fly over public areas without permission.

As IEEE points outs, the worry surrounding non-recreational drone use was that the FAA would clamp down hard (the rules for hobby or recreational use of drones still stand). These rules at least show that the administration is open to the technology. However, a few of the rules in particular would make it hard for anything like Amazon drone delivery to exist as a viable business.

First, someone has to have eyes on the drone at all times. Either the operator or a visual observer must track it along his or her visual line of sight. The drone itself is allowed to fly autonomously, but an operator has to be ready to take over if something goes wrong and the drone itself must still be in visual range. These requirements alone would seem to kill any commercial application where a customer can’t be seen from the store. (Thee FAA is “aggressively researching” beyond line-of-sight flight.)

Compounding this, drones would not be allowed to fly at night or over people not aware that drones are in the area. This makes flying over public spaces (ostensibly requiring the consent of every person there) or delivering a package as fast as conventional methods practically impossible. Amazon isn’t happy.

But these rules aren’t the end of the story. These are just the proposed rules. For the next 60 days, the FAA is welcoming comments on the proposal, and it will take a year or more after that to get a finished law. There’s hope for your drone-delivered DVDs yet.

Wade through the FAA’s full report for yourself here.

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  1. Daffydd says:

    Following this logic, Governmental use of General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper would also be illegal in autonomous mode, considering these are not just the Angel of Death in the Middle East, but are also used for Search and Rescue, Remote Sensing, Forestry and Fire prevention…

  2. Hoss says:


    Eff drone deliveries.  Seriously.