A federally commissioned panel on Wednesday recommended that commercially operated small drones be allowed to fly over populated areas, a proposal that would clear the way for dozens of uses, including filming parades, inspecting towers and tracking movement on construction sites.
Most drones would be required to fly at least 20 feet above people and never come within 10 feet of them during takeoff and landing.
To date, the Federal Aviation Administration has banned routine commercial drone flights over people who are not a party to the drone’s operations. The FAA is not bound to follow the recommendations of the panel that it created, a coalition of stakeholders that includes drone manufacturers, firms that fly them, commercial and private pilots, and airports.
The FAA prohibition on commercial overflights of people has frustrated construction firms that want to monitor their work sites, news organizations eager to use them for media coverage and companies that would use them to inspect things such as cellular towers before sending workers up to repair them.
The FAA’s caution in restricting drone use grew from fears they would invade privacy or pose a risk to airplanes in flight. Pilots reported hundreds of close calls with drones last year.
The FAA has been under pressure from Congress to expedite drone regulations as annual sales of the unmanned aircraft are expected to grow from 2.5 million this year to 7 million in 2020. The FAA already requires that they be registered, and lawmakers have proposed that their owners pass a mandatory online test before flying.
The FAA already has one set of proposed regulations open for public comment, and the recommendations outlined Wednesday will be considered by the agency and put out for comment shortly.
In recommendations released Wednesday, the panel proposes dividing into four categories the drones allowed to fly over people.
Those that weigh about half a pound or less would be permitted to fly over people without restriction if their manufacturer certified that there would be no more than a 1 percent chance that serious injury would result if they hit someone.
Heavier drones would be required to fly at least 20 feet above people or keep a lateral distance of at least 10 feet.
“That gives the operator and the person time to react should anything go wrong,” said Nancy Egan, a panel member and general counsel of drone manufacturer 3D Robotics. “The 10-feet lateral was really to clear takeoff space, so if you’re around people, you don’t take off within two feet of them, you don’t fly nose-to-nose with a person.”
Manufacturers would be required to test their products to determine how seriously they would injure someone.
“Think like the crash tests the automotive [industry does], when you see the car with the dummy in it and they hit the wall,” said Earl Lawrence, the FAA’s director of the Office of Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration.
Lawrence said similar tests have been conducted with aircraft in the past.
“Picture a UAS being slammed into a plate that has sensors in it. Force measurements would be made, and if they were lower than the limits that have been established by medical research to not cause a serious injury, then it passed the test,” he said.
The industry would certify to the FAA that its drone had passed the test. The panel recommended that drones be labeled by category so operators would know what restrictions applied.
“Letting people know what they can and cannot do with a particular drone is very important, and there will be industry standards,” Egan said.
The panel’s work was complicated because drones differ not just in weight but in size. A five-pound drone carrying a heavy camera may be equal in weight to a larger drone carrying lighter equipment. But the impact, if each of them hit a human, might differ.
As a result, the potential damage a drone could do was seen by the panel as the decisive factor.
A drone determined to fall in category 2 is allowed to perform above people if its operator observes the 20-foot and 10-foot rules. A third category would be restricted to closed locations, such as a construction site, movie set or farm field. The fourth category would require a risk-mitigation plan, a specified flight path and a more highly credentialed person at the controls.
The FAA rule-making proposal already out for public comment would require that the aircraft weigh less than 55 pounds. The operator would be required to be able to see the drone at all times. Drones would be restricted to flying during daylight hours and required to keep clear of other manned or unmanned aircraft. Their use around airports would be prohibited, and operators would have to contact air traffic controllers if they sought to fly in the vicinity of airplane flight paths.