FAA to Have U.S. Commercial Drone Rules in Place by Mid-2016

The FAA has been under pressure from legislators and businesses to get the new regulations completed so that drones can be used by U.S. businesses.

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Commercial drones could be used in the skies over the United States by mid-June 2016, as the Federal Aviation Administration is working to complete new regulations that would govern such flights and keep them safely away from commercial and private aircraft traffic as well as pedestrians and other hazards on the ground.

An FAA official who testified this week before a U.S. House committee about the progress of the agency's drone regulations revealed the June 2016 timeframe for the implementation of the upcoming rules, according to a June 17 report from Reuters. That would be some six to eight months earlier than previous estimated timelines.

"The rule will be in place within a year," FAA Deputy Administrator Michael Whitaker testified before the U.S. House of Representatives Oversight and Government Reform Committee, according to Reuters. "Hopefully before June 17, 2016."

A wide range of businesses, from e-retailer Amazon to agricultural businesses, photographers, energy production companies, news operations and others have been clamoring for the ability to use drones for several years but have been prevented from doing so until the FAA implements regulations to ensure their safe operation. The businesses have been arguing that the delays in implementing drone rules in the United States are costing businesses billions of dollars in cost savings and new revenue.

Paul Misener, vice president of global public policy at Amazon, testified before the committee that his company is ready to begin using its long-envisioned delivery drones once the rules are in place. Amazon has been testing drone delivery services in Canada and other countries for some time to find ways to make the planned services work well for customers. Amazon's service, Prime Air, would deliver packages within 30 minutes after an order is placed.

"We'd like to begin delivering to our customers as soon as it's approved," Misener said, according to Reuters. "We will have (the technology) in place by the time any regulations are ready. We are working very quickly."

Amazon criticized the previously slow pace of progress. In March, a company spokesman told a U.S. Senate subcommittee that earlier moves by the agency to get the rules completed were taking far too long, eWEEK reported at the time. The FAA had just given Amazon permission to conduct outdoor experiments with its proposed drone-based package delivery services, but Amazon called that move too little, too late.

In comparison, Amazon has been able to get similar permissions in other countries much faster, the spokesman told the subcommittee. The testing that Amazon had asked to do in the United States and which led to the permission for outdoor experiments was actually completed previously in another country before the FAA handed down the decision, the spokesman said at the time.

The FAA in March granted an Experimental Airworthiness Certificate (EAC) to Amazon so the company could conduct more research into the proposed system so that it could be refined and explored as a potentially viable delivery system in the future. The EAC set rules for the drone experiments, including provisions that all flight operations must be conducted at 400 feet or below during daylight hours in good weather and that the drones must always remain within the visual line-of-sight of the pilot and observer. In addition, the drone experiments under the certificate must be flown by a pilot who has a minimum of a private pilot's certificate and current medical certification, the FAA stated.

Some 48 companies so far have been granted permission for drone experiments by the FAA before the new rules are in place, according to the agency.

The FAA has been working to propose, review and finalize rules in the controversial area of drones. Critics of drones cite concerns about privacy, potential interference with commercial and private air traffic, terrorism worries and more, while supporters argue that drones could open new avenues of commerce, logistics and potential services that have not yet even been identified.

Back in December 2013, Amazon said it had begun working on a drone-based delivery system that it hoped to use in the next few years to deliver packages to customers' doorsteps in 30 minutes or less, according to an earlier eWEEK report. At the time, Amazon said those future deliveries could be made using what it called a "Prime Air Octocopter," which had four thin metal legs and eight small, horizontally spinning helicopter blades that made it look like a large robotic stink bug. The drone design was about the size of a medium-size dog and grabbed and carried its package off to its destination, according to the company's description at the time.

Amazon predicted back then that it would be ready to set its Octocopters in flight by 2015, but it is still waiting for the FAA to create and finalize the rules that could one day enable such delivery methods.