US working on rules for flying drones over populated areas

The goal is to make filming, inspections and deliveries feasible in cities.

Philippe Huguen/AFP/Getty Images

A US government committee has submitted proposed rules to the FAA for drone flights over populated areas, according to the Associated Press. The move would allow much broader use of UAVs for movie filming, package deliveries and other commercial purposes. The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has banned drone flights over cities and crowds except via special exemptions, due to the dangers of crashing into people or commercial planes. However, many industries feel such restrictions are holding back the commercial potential of drones and that the risks are minimal.

According to documents seen by AP, the committee has divided drones into four separate categories for flights over people. The first includes drones under a half-pound with no flight restrictions. However, the manufacturer would have to certify that there would be no more than one percent chance of a person being hurt if it fell on them.

The second category is for the most common type of recreational and commercial models by the likes of DJI (above), 3D Robotics and others. Those range from four to five pounds in size, though there would be no set weight limit, according to the AP. Permissions for flights over crowds would depend on the design, but the operator would again have to show that there would be no more than a one percent chance of someone getting hurt if it fell "at the maximum strength impact possible."

The third category of drones could only fly over folks working on inspections and other drone-related tasks, with a 30 percent risk of injury during a fall. In the fourth category, flights would be allowed over crowds, but only if the operator demonstrated a "congested area plan" to reduce risks. The manufacturer would also have to prove an injury risk of less than 30 percent. For the latter three categories, the drones would need to fly at least 20 feet over peoples' heads.

Industry is keen to push drone flights in populous areas as quickly as possible. "The risks are nominal," says the Small UAV Coalition executive director Michael Droba. "The reality is the technology would likely save lives rather than threaten them." As such, the proposed laws simply require that pilots pass an online knowledge test.

However, sources told the AP that the Airline Pilots Association (ALPA), along with the helicopter and crop-dusting industries, wanted pilots to pass TSA background checks and have tests done in person by FAA personnel. Those groups were perhaps spooked by recently reported near-misses between UAVs and airliners. However, the majority of the committee was opposed to such checks, so the committee recommended online tests with a dissent from ALPA and industry groups.

The FAA received the recommended rules on Friday, but can decide any way it likes. So far, the agency has erred on the side of safety by requiring pilots to register drones, though it has relaxed the regulations considerably recently. If passed as is, the rules could unleash a considerable number of drones on the public, so the FAA will no doubt take its time.