The FAA just changed the rules on small drones – Here’s what you need to know

Up until now, drones have largely been regularly encountered by the more technologicially savvy of us—but that may change very soon, as the U.S. federal government has just changed some of the rules about commercial drone use.

Commercial drone use up until now has been extremely limited; while it’s been possible since 2014, it’s required a special exemption from the FAA. Around 5,000 passes were granted overall, but primarily for aerial photography.

Now, according to MIT Technology Review, new guidelines will come into play on Monday that streamline the process of becoming a commercial drone pilot—making it more like getting a driver’s license—and loosening some of the regulations regarding low-risk drone use. Now, drones weighing less than 55 pounds can be operated commercially, granted they do not go beyond the pilot’s line of sight, they aren’t flown at night, aren’t flown higher than 400 feet (or 400 above the top of tall structures), or they aren’t flown over a crowd of people.

“The vast majority of commercial uses that we can think of fall into that space perfectly,” Chris Anderson, the CEO of 3DR, a leading drone maker, told MIT. “It’s a nice alignment between what’s safe, what the FAA feels is an easy thing to do now, and what’s commercially attractive.”

Expect to See Drones in the Sky

For example, you will probably soon be seeing drones carrying out a dizzying array of tasks, including ones that are dangerous for humans to do directly—like inspecting and monitoring structures like wind turbines, cell phone towers, and tall bridges. Insurance companies will probably take up drones eagerly, using them to inspect rooftops or to inspect or leaks and similar issues on tall buildings.

And while some of these regulations aren’t optimal—the inability to fly drones at night, for example, makes it harder to use thermal imaging to detect the aforementioned leaks—there is the possibility for companies to receive permission to go beyond them. A new waiver process will permit companies to apply to use drones beyond what the rules allow, granted they can prove the usage is safe.

But this won’t be the end of changing up the drone world for the FAA—soon, they will begin regulation of flights that go over crowds of people, which would help with things like newscasting and law enforcement.

However, anything that involves drones flying beyond the pilot’s line of sight—like package delivery—is still a long ways away. Such a task will require a lot more safety tests, and as more drones fill the skies, likely a drone air traffic control system.

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Image credit: Unsplash

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