U.S. could allow drones to fly at night and over people

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The U.S. Department of Transportation this week announced proposed new rules that could allow drones to fly at night and over people without waivers under certain conditions.

What changes could come to rules around flying drones at night?

Currently it is illegal under FAA rule Part 107.29 to fly drones at night. But here’s the thing: many drone operations, such as anti-poaching, search and rescue or emergency response occur at night. And the data proves it: since Dec. 31, 2017, the FAA has received 4,837 requests from operators or companies wanted to operate at night — by far the most common waiver request received by the FAA.

And here’s the kicker: to date, the FAA has not received any reports of a drone accident operating under a night waiver.

Some drone operators have suggested that flying at night is actually safer, because collision lights make the drone easy to spot in the sky, and there is no sun in eyes to interfere with line of sight.

And it seems the FAA is changing their tune and is now considering legally allowing drone flights at night.

In order to fly at night, under the new proposal, pilots would have to simply a new “knowledge testing or training,” and they would have to ensure their drone has an anti-collision light illuminated and visible for at least 3 statute miles.

What changes could come to rules around flying drones over people?

When it comes to allowing drone flights over people, the FAA has proposed three categories of drone flight types. Depending on what category your drone flight falls under ,you may be able to fly over people.

Category 1: Under Category 1 flights, operators of drones weighing 0.55 pounds or less would be able to fly over people. There would be no waivers and no design standards required for the hardware itself.

Category 2: Drones weighing more than 0.55 pounds would fall under either Category 2 or 3 (the difference being whether the drone hardware itself meets certain performance standards).

To fall under category 2, the drone’s manufacturer would have to prove their drone meets a set of performance requirements where, if the drone hit a person, would not “result in an injury as severe as the injury that would result from a transfer of 11 ft-lbs of kinetic energy from a rigid
object.” The aircraft would also not be able to have exposed rotating parts that could lacerate human skin (aka sharp propellers).

To meet those standards, manufacturers would have to take into account factors like weight limitations, speed, materials/construction methods used and failsafe measures.

“For example, using frangible materials, or designing aircraft to crumple upon impact in a way that would likely reduce the amount of kinetic energy transferred and, as a result, the severity of the injury,” according to the FAA’s draft proposal.

Category 3: Category 3 is largely similar to Category 2, but has additional operational limitations. Instead of the Category 2’s 11 ft-lb kinetic energy threshold, a Category 3 drone flight “would require a small unmanned aircraft to be designed, upon impact with a person, not to result in an injury as severe as the injury that would result from a transfer of 25 ft-lbs of kinetic energy from a rigid object.”

Because of that higher injury threshold, drone flights falling under Category 3 would be restricted to closed sites where everyone below has to be notified that drones are flying over them. The drone may also transit, but not hover over people.

The new category 2 and category 3 could mean changes for drone manufacturers, as dronemakers seek to ensure their drones comply with standards so they can actually be flown over people.

Drone manufacturer DJI didn’t come out strongly in favor or against the safety standards, but did say that the FAA’s approach appears to be based on recommendations in a report from an FAA Aviation Rulemaking Committee that DJI participated in during 2016. But DJI also added that some details, such as the safety testing methodology, differ from the recommendations in the report and “compel further study by industry stakeholders.”

That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement, but overall DJI doesn’t seem to upset.

“We are pleased that the Department of Transportation recognizes the importance of allowing drones to do productive work over people, and that they encourage manufacturers to develop creative ways to meet safety standards,” said Brendan Schulman, DJI Vice President of Policy & Legal Affairs. “We will review these proposed rules to evaluate how well they can be implemented in practice, and we intend to submit comments to help inform and support the department’s work of ensuring that drones continue to reach their full beneficial potential.”

The new rules aren’t particularly groundbreaking, but most industry experts say they are a welcome step in moving toward more widespread drone use — and it seems even the FAA recognizes that.

“These proposed changes to Part 107 would attempt to balance the need to mitigate safety risks without inhibiting technological and operational advances,” according to a prepared statement from the FAA.

“These FAA rulemakings will help advance the commercial UAS industry beyond the current regulatory framework,” said Brian Wynne, president and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI). “A rule that allows for widespread operations over people without requiring a waiver will allow more operators to harness the great potential of UAS.”

Read the full FAA proposed changes here.

So what’s next? The proposal will soon be published in the federal register, where it will enter a 60-day open comment period.





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