FOR YEARS, the rules on unmanned aerial vehicles — also known as drones — have been irrational. Recreational drone users — ordinary people who buy quadcopters at Walmart and play around with them in their backyards — have been given broad freedom to pilot their flying devices. This seems to have resulted in increasingly large numbers of close-call incidents reported by commercial airline pilots. Meanwhile, companies have been largely barred from using drones for all sorts of productive uses, from surveying storm damage to taking aerial photos to delivering packages. This bizarre situation will change on Monday. But the government still has a long way to go to enable the tantalizing possibilities unmanned flying machines offer.
FAA rules phasing in Monday will allow companies to fly small drones — weighing less than 55 pounds — without a special waiver from the agency. Instead, commercial drone pilots will have to be certified by taking a written test, and those pilots will have to keep their devices below 400 feet and always within sight. These rules avoid several crucial mistakes that could have grounded a young industry; for a time, there was talk that the FAA would require commercial drone pilots to have full airplane pilot’s licenses. This would have been nonsensical: Drone pilots do not need to log hours of flight time in a Cessna, they need to know the rules of the airspace and the characteristics of the craft they actually control. More appropriate drone pilot training programs, which include specially designed flying courses, have already begun popping up.
Yet the new rules are still quite restrictive, particularly the requirement that operators keep drones within their line of sight. This makes sense for unsophisticated drones that require pilots’ constant attention. But it also limits companies from putting drones to many valuable uses, unless they get a special waiver. Amazon.com — whose chief executive, Jeffrey P. Bezos, owns The Post — wants to use custom-built drones to deliver orders within half an hour. But there are a variety of other, less-heralded possibilities: Drones fitted with hazard-avoidance technology, advanced communications systems and other equipment could also scan electrical wires for damage, conduct search-and-rescue operations, collect news and, no doubt, do dozens of other things no one has thought of yet. As long as commercial drones have to stay within a pilot’s line of sight — and, indeed, have a dedicated pilot — their range and usefulness will be limited.
The FAA is not oblivious to these considerations, and even if the agency were more permissive, it would take time for the technology to prove itself to the public. But officials used to decades of regulating big airliners need to do a more nimble job adapting to the revolution in unmanned and, some day soon, automated flight.
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