FAA to Look at Recommendations Allowing Drone Flights Over People

To be permitted to fly over humans, drones would have to meet size and safety standards, based on an FAA committee recommendation.

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An FAA committee is recommending that some drone flights over humans be permitted if the devices are small enough not to cause serious injuries should a crash occur. Presently, all drone flights are forbidden over people not connected to the flight of the unmanned aircraft system (UAS), a formal name for drones and other small craft.

The recommendation came in an April 6 announcement from the Federal Aviation Administration, which cites a report and evaluation compiled by the Micro Unmanned Aircraft Systems Aviation Rulemaking Committee. The FAA had asked the committee back in March to come up with potential regulations "that would let certain unmanned aircraft operate over people not directly involved in the flight of the aircraft," according to the report.

The 27-member rulemaking committee, which included UAS manufacturers, UAS operators, standards organizations, researchers and academics, recommended the creation of four small UAS categories that would be "defined primarily by risk of injury to people below the flight path," the report states. "For each category, the group recommends assigning a potential risk linked to either weight or impact energy" of a UAS device. The recommendations also include operational restrictions and standards to minimize the risks associated with each category so that some drones would potentially be allowed to fly over humans.

"We commend the committee members for their sincere dedication and for producing a comprehensive report in such a short time," FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said in a statement. "This type of collaborative government and industry partnership is exactly what is needed to keep pace with this rapidly changing industry and will serve as a model for future rulemaking advisory tasks."

The FAA said it will now use the report's recommendations to develop rules for possible UAS flights over people. Public comments will be collected based on the committee's recommendations as well.

The 19-page report states that since any UAS flown over people could experience a flight failure that it would "focus on the severity of injury that is acceptable assuming the UAS makes impact with a person." Using that standard, the committee recommended that the "impact energy" of a UAS would have to be demonstrated and certified by a manufacturer based on testing established by a standards body. Only after such certification could a UAS be sold and operated in the United States.

The committee "believes that there are small UAS [devices] that pose a level of risk that is so low that they are relatively safe to operate over people without being subjected" to further regulations, the report states. UAS devices weighing less than 250 grams offer a "low level of risk of injury," the report continues. The committee recommends that the FAA invite the industry to create voluntary, non-binding standards to clearly mark UAS craft that weigh less than 250 grams "to make it clear to users that these UAS meet the requirement to operate over people."

Permission for drone flights over people would be an important requirement for businesses that are waiting impatiently across the United States to begin drone flights for package delivery, building inspections, aerial photography and other tasks. Many businesses 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, according to earlier eWEEK reports.

In December, the FAA announced registration rules for operators of small UAS devices for hobby and recreational use who want to legally operate drones that weigh between 0.55 pounds and 55 pounds in U.S. airspaces. The registration process was created by the agency to deal with what it called a growing problem of irresponsible drone use across the country. The FAA created an Unmanned Aircraft Systems Registration Task Force in October to tackle the issue. One of the key goals of the registration requirement is to allow the FAA to be able to identify the owners and operators of unmanned aircraft in U.S. airspace. Registration is a statutory requirement that applies to all aircraft, small and large.

In November, Amazon unveiled a new drone prototype aircraft for its still-in-development Prime Air package delivery system, this time with a model that takes off and lands vertically but flies on a horizontal flight path to its destination. The drone design is a flat-looking flying machine with a triple rudder tail and three landing wheels. Its engine is mounted at the rear in the center of the vertical rudders.

Amazon's drone program is aimed at providing package deliveries of less than 5 pounds to consumers in less than 30 minutes in select locations. The drones will fly under 400 feet in altitude, have "sense and avoid" capabilities to stay away from aircraft and other obstacles, and be able to be operated up to distances of 10 miles or more, according to Amazon. Amazon has been looking at drone deliveries as a way of offering faster service to customers while also saving money, compared with the more costly human-based delivery systems.

The FAA has been working since 2012 to develop rules and procedures for the commercial use of drones in the United States. The regulations will govern drone flights and keep them safely away from commercial and private aircraft traffic as well as pedestrians and other hazards on the ground.