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New federal regulations would make drones fly at night and over crowds

  Unmanned aircraft are flown over a large house.
Enlarge / A drone will be flown at a real estate inspection after Hurricane Harvey in Houston in 2017.

The Federal Aviation Administration suggested on Monday that regulations be relaxed for commercial drone operations. Since 201

6, the FAA has allowed the commercial operation of unmanned aerial vehicles weighing less than 55 pounds under certain circumstances. New rules proposed this week would ease two of the limitations in the 2016 regulations: drones can now operate at night, and they can operate on humans.

The agency already allows some night flights, but only on a case-by-case basis. The Agency claims to have received thousands of requests for night operations exemptions since 2016 and to receive 1,233 of these requests. The FAA says there were no accident reports due to these nocturnal operations. The new FAA proposal would allow people to operate drones at night without the special permission of the Agency – provided that the operator is additionally trained and the drone has lights that are visible from a distance of five kilometers.

Current regulations prohibit commercial drone operations from persons who are not directly involved in the vehicle. The new rules would allow drones to fly over people if the drone manufacturer confirms that is safe. In particular, manufacturers would have to demonstrate that in the event of a malfunction, the drone does not exceed a maximum of kinetic energy as defined by the FAA (11 or 25 foot-pounds, as the case may be).

One way to accomplish this requirement is to make a drone of light enough material so that the device does not reach very high speed in free fall. Drone manufacturers, however, have the opportunity to develop other mechanisms to prevent bystanders and submit them to the FAA for approval.

The new rules would also require that drones flown over people would not have exposed propeller blades that could cause injury. [19659004] There is another major caveat to the new rules: The FAA says it will not finalize it until work on a drone identification system is completed. Law enforcement officials fear that drones could be used for terrorism or other nefarious purposes, and urged a mechanism to automatically identify the owner and purpose of drones in a particular area.

Usually it takes 12 to 18 months to get a first rule to become a final rule. However, the FAA's promise to initially develop a drone identification system could delay these rules for months to come. This means that the rules may not be set until 2021 or later.

New Rules May Open Significant New Applications

The evolution of drone technology has far exceeded the evolution of FAA rules. As a result, many people are waiting for the rules to change to allow for new drone technology applications.

Michael McKisson, a professor of journalism at the University of Arizona, cites drone journalism as an example. News organizations have long used aircraft and helicopters to record footage of major events such as protests, traffic jams and natural disasters. However, traditional aviation is expensive. "Every time they wanted to take aerial photographs, they had to hire or own a helicopter," McKisson says.

Drones dramatically cut costs and make aerial photography accessible to many other news organizations. And loosening the rule against people's actions could make a big difference, since many important events – protests, festivals and crime scenes – involve a large number of people.

Brendan Schulman, a political expert from the leading drone manufacturer DJI, points to the search for rescue and rescue operations as another important application for drones. "Flying at night is an advantage, because at this time of day it can be very important to find missing persons or in a disaster area," Schulman said to Ars.

While the FAA proposes to relax two of its rules, there is still considerable limits for drone operation. Each drone must have a special operator to monitor the flight from the ground. This operator must have a direct line of sight to the drone.

These restrictions exclude some of the drone applications that could have the greatest economic impact. For example, as early as 2013, Amazon predicted that it would deliver packages of drones within five years. More than five years later, this has not happened, and the FAA rules are one of the reasons.

To be useful, a drone delivery service has to overfly its operator's line of sight, and the FAA does not allow this. To be economically viable, a drone delivery service would probably need to be semi-automated, with one operator overseeing multiple drone suppliers. That would again be against the current FAA rules.

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