For years, American businesses have been clamoring for the government to roll out a set of regulations for drone technology so that the companies can legally start using them for everything from agriculture to filmmaking to delivering packages.
On Monday, an important set of federal drone rules finally took effect across the country — making it possible for firms to start using drones in a limited manner. Over time, the government will write other rules that will enable the use of commercial drones even more widely. But for now, this marks a huge milestone for the industry, one that's likely to lead to big changes for business and the economy. Here's what you need to know to get up to speed:
What do these rules say?
Well, a few things. Most important are the big limitations. These rules cover commercial-purpose drones that weigh up to 55 pounds (that's inclusive of any payload they may be carrying, such as cameras or packages). The drones can be flown only during the day and can't be flown over people who aren't somehow related to the flight. They can fly only up to an altitude of 400 feet, a speed of up to 100 miles per hour and they have to stay within visual contact of the operator.
Do the pilots have to have a pilot's license?
Not necessarily. But they do have to pass a written test on aeronautical knowledge, kind of like a bigger version of the test you'd take to get a driver's license. The study guide is about 80 pages long and covers topics such as "proper radio procedure" and how temperature and humidity can affect the air in which a drone is flying.
Has the Federal Aviation Administration started granting these licenses already?
As of early Monday morning, when the rules went into effect, the FAA had received about 3,000 requests for these drone pilot certifications. That gives you an idea of how much interest there is in flying under these rules.
What's still missing as these rules go into effect?
For the purposes of typical consumers like you and me, the most important restriction is that companies still can't run what are called "beyond-line-of-sight" operations — meaning it will still be a while before companies like Amazon can officially spin up on-demand drone deliveries.
That's not to say it will never happen: Companies can apply for special testing waivers from the FAA that allow them to go farther than what the rules permit. And those are generally approved on a case-by-case basis. The FAA is also running an experimental program called Pathfinder that's looking at how companies like CNN and others can fly drones over people (for example, for newsgathering purposes) and in beyond-line-of-sight operations.
The FAA has granted 76 of these waivers. Of those, 72 had to do with flying at night, which is still prohibited under the official regulations.
Can you be penalized for not obeying the rules?
The short answer is yes — that's part of the point. According to FAA Administrator Michael Huerta, commercial pilots who fly outside the parameters of the regulations risk punishment by the agency. (For what it's worth, even private hobbyists who aren't covered by these regulations have to register their drones with the FAA or face fines.)
What's the point of commercial drones, anyway?
Beyond package delivery, companies are eager to use drones for mapping and surveying land, remotely assessing fields and crops, inspecting the integrity of cell towers and railroad tracks, shooting films and providing aerial photos of real estate. Some wireless carriers even want to use drones as flying mobile data hotspots in large stadiums or during natural disasters. You can do some of this today with helicopters, but at much greater cost.
What about privacy?
The government has published privacy guidelines for drone users. These aren't legally binding like the FAA's Part 107 rules are, but many of them just sound like common sense. For example, they recommend not flying over other people's private property without their permission, if you can avoid it. If you're taking pictures or video over someone's property, you might want to tell them before you start.
What comes next?
The FAA will design further rules that will open up the possibility of flying commercial drones over people. A draft of those is expected by year's end. And the government will make it a priority to address beyond-line-of-sight capabilities, though it's less clear when those rules may be ready.