FAA To Propose Relaxing Drone Rules

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The FAA is proposing relaxing rules for flying drones over people and at night. The FAA released a draft of the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking Monday. The NPRM will be published in the Federal Register “at a later date.” A draft Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking was also released laying the groundwork for public input into the myriad concerns the public might have about integration of drones into the National Airspace System. The full information package is tucked deep in the FAA website and was announced with little fanfare. In the NPRM relaxing flights over people, the FAA establishes three levels of risk based on the size of the drones and the operating circumstances. The FAA establishes the likelihood of injury if someone is hit by a drone to determine the classification of risk. Those thresholds establish whether a drone is harmless, unlikely to injure or unlikely to kill a person on the ground. Drones in the upper two categories also can’t be able to cut people with spinning blades.

Drones weighing less than .55 pounds will be allowed to fly over people with no additional restriction beyond the regular rules governing drone flights. The FAA says there’s little risk from tiny drones and operations over people will be allowed as soon as the rule takes effect. 

In Category 2, manufacturers of drones weighing more than .55 pounds and up to 55 pounds will have to be able to prove a crashing drone can’t cause serious injury. That threshold is an international standard based on the transfer of the equivalent of 11 foot pounds of kinetic energy when it hits someone. While mass and velocity determine kinetic force, its effect can be mitigated through technology and engineering, such as crumple zones or breakaway parts or the ability to avoid a collision. Compliance with that injury threshold would have to be proven but there will be no operational restrictions in Category 2.

At the top end of the scale is Category 3, in which the drone might be capable of hurting someone (but unlikely to kill them) by hitting with a force up to 25 foot pounds of kinetic energy. The FAA proposes to mitigate the drone’s ability to clobber someone by restricting operations. Potentially injury-causing drones wouldn’t be able to fly over any “open-air assembly of people.” They could be used over a closed or restricted space as long as the people inside have been notified there are drones overhead. If the drone is being used outside a closed or restricted space it’s not allowed to hover over people. 

The FAA will also allow night operations as long as the pilot is trained and the drone has an anti-collision light visible from at least three statute miles. Anything outside the new rules and drones weighing more than 55 pounds will require a waiver from the FAA. The draft rules were unveiled at a low-key event in Washington on Monday but were supposed to have been announced at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas by Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao. She stayed in Washington because of the government shutdown and announced the proposed changes at the Transportation Research Board annual meeting.