Flying a drone puts pilots at the center of a strange dichotomy. It’s easy: Pull a quadcopter out of the box, and with little training, you’re up in the sky. It’s tough: That sky is criss-crossed with a spiderweb of regulations and guidelines — occasionally straightforward, occasionally arcane — governing where, when, and how you can fly your drone. The rules are not, however, immutable.
The Federal Aviation Administration is mulling a change that might allow small drones to fly over groups of human craniums. This is big news for non-hermit drone pilots — and the future of Amazon drone delivery, for instance, just got a little brighter.
As it stands now, the FAA regs do make a sort of sense: Fly no higher than 400 feet, stay away from stadiums and airports, keep the drone in line of sight, don’t fly over people.
That last one, about flying over people’s heads? Don’t get too attached, according to an FAA statement released Wednesday. A newly-formed committee will “develop recommendations for a regulatory framework that would allow certain UAS to be operated over people who are not directly involved in the operation of the aircraft.” In other words — if your drone isn’t likely to be a hazard to people chilling nearby, fly on.
This can be seen as part of a recent push to recognize a subset of smaller drones — a task undertaken by the FAA as well as legislators. Currently, in the FAA’s eyes, all drones that weigh up to 55 pounds are treated more or less equally. But a 3-pound DJI Phantom — the most popular drone requested for flight exemptions — by dint of potential energy is less destructive than a machine that weighs the same as a winged Dalmation.
Weight is part of the game, but not the sole focus of the shift “The FAA will pursue a flexible, performance-based regulatory framework that addresses potential hazards,” says FAA Administrator Michael Huerta in a statement, “instead of a classification defined primarily by weight and speed.” That’s great news for companies like Google or Amazon, both exploring the potential for drones to deliver goods to consumers.
The skies aren’t yet completely clear for delivery drones, as the FAA is wary of letting pilots fly their devices beyond line of sight. But that, too, may fall, if first-person goggles improve to the point where pilots have a better sense of where their far-flung drones are headed. “The Department,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said Wednesday, “continues to be bullish on new technology.” Let the Amazon boxes one day rain like manna from god-king Bezos.