Business & Tech

Panel urges FAA to allow commercial drone flights over people

A Flirtey drone flies above the Wise County Fairgrounds while lowering a package of prescription medication at the Remote Area Medical Clinic in Wise County, Va. Flirtey is an independent drone delivery company.
Tim C. Cox/The Bristol Herald-Courier via AP, File 2015
A Flirtey drone flies above the Wise County Fairgrounds while lowering a package of prescription medication at the Remote Area Medical Clinic in Wise County, Va. Flirtey is an independent drone delivery company.

WASHINGTON — An advisory committee is recommending standards that could clear the way for commercial drone flights over populated areas and help speed the introduction of package delivery drones.

The Federal Aviation Administration currently prohibits most commercial drone flights over populated areas.

‘‘Every TV station in the country wants one, but they can’t be limited to flying in the middle of nowhere because there’s no news in the middle of nowhere,’’ said Jim Williams, a former head of the FAA drone office who now advises the industry.

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Cellular network providers also want to loosen restrictions so drones can inspect cell towers.

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And Amazon.com’s vision for package deliveries entails drones winging their way over city and suburban neighborhoods.

The recommendations were sent to the FAA late Friday. The agency is not bound by them and can make changes when it writes final rules.

The recommendations call for four categories of small drones that commercial operators can fly over people, including crowds in some cases.

Drones weighing no more than about a half-pound. They essentially could fly unrestricted over people, including crowds. Makers would have to certify that if the drone hit someone, there would be no more than a 1 percent chance that the maximum force of the impact would cause a serious injury.

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For the three other categories, the drones would have to fly at least 20 feet over the heads of people and keep a distance of at least 10 feet laterally from them.

According to the recommendations:

 Drones in the second category would be mostly small quadcopters with multiple arms and propellers, weighing 4 to 5 pounds — though there is no weight limit. Flights over people, including crowds, would depend on the design and operating instructions. Manufacturers would have to demonstrate that the chance of a serious injury was 1 percent or less.

  Drones in the third category could not fly over crowds or densely populated areas. They would be used in closed or restricted areas where the people that the drones fly over have permission from the drone operator to be present. Flights over them would be brief, not sustained. Manufacturers would have to show a 30 percent or less chance a person would be seriously injured if struck by the drone.

 Drones in the fourth category could have sustained flights over crowds. The operator would have to develop a ‘‘congested area plan’’ showing how risks would be mitigated. The risk of serious injury would have to be 30 percent or less. Safety tests would be more exacting, and the FAA would limit how strong the drone’s maximum impact could be.

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‘‘The risks are nominal,’’ said Michael Drobac, executive director of the Small UAV Coalition. ‘‘The reality is the technology would likely save lives rather than threaten them.’’

The FAA formed the committee in February to circumvent traditional federal rule-making procedures, which can take years. The committee was made up of 27 companies or trade associations, including drone manufacturers, as well as airline and private pilots, airports, crop dusting companies, and helicopter operators.

A last-minute disagreement nearly kept the committee from meeting the Friday deadline for the recommendations.

The Air Line Pilots Association and trade associations for the helicopter and crop dusting industries wanted to require that all commercial drone operators pass an in-person FAA aviation test and receive a background check from the Transportation Security Administration, according to an industry official. Most committee members opposed requiring anything more than an online knowledge test. The matter was resolved by the inclusion of a dissent by those in favor of the FAA test and TSA clearance.

The FAA initially described the panel as a ‘‘micro’’ drone committee. The agency defines such drones as those weighing less than 4.4 pounds. But the committee decided not to set a weight limit for most of the categories. That means it’s possible that any ‘‘small’’ drone, which the FAA defines as weighing less than 55 pounds, could win approval to fly over people if the drone met the safety criteria laid out in the recommendations. For example, a smaller drone that flies at higher speeds with fast-moving propellers may prove more of a risk than a heavier drone that flies more slowly and whose propellers don’t rotate as quickly.