FAA unclips wings of commercial drones

Blanket airspace clearance aims to cut a hurdle in drone operations

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration has further loosened restrictions on commercial drone flight, removing the need for companies to obtain airspace clearance for flying approved drones.

The new rules apply to a handful of companies that have been granted an exemption from current FAA regulations that ban commercial operation of drones. Just over 50 companies have received the exemption so far and scores of others have applied for it.

At present, companies with the flight exemption still have to apply for authorization to operate in a block of airspace -- a procedure that can take up to 2 months, said the FAA. The new policy grants a blanket waiver to these companies to conduct drone flights as long as the drones weigh less than 55 pounds (25kgs) and they stay within certain limits.

Flights cannot go higher than 200 feet, they must take place during daytime and stay within visual line-of-sight of operators. The blanket waiver only applies to areas more than 5 nautical miles from an airport with a control tower, 3 nautical miles from airports with instrument flight procedures but no control tower, and 2 nautical miles from other airports and heliports.

The blanket waiver, like the commercial exemptions, is intended as a stop-gap measure until new rules governing drone flight are enacted. At present, flying drones as a hobby is governed by rules similar to those for model aircraft but commercial flight is banned.

The FAA recently published proposed regulations that would free many companies to use drones and it is currently soliciting public feedback on them.

In part, they propose a new drone operator license that would remove the need to hold a pilot's license. Drones would be restricted to 500 feet in altitude, a speed of 100 miles per hour and daytime operation. Drones would also be prohibited from flying over anyone except those involved in its operation.

Martyn Williams covers mobile telecoms, Silicon Valley and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Martyn on Twitter at @martyn_williams. Martyn's e-mail address is martyn_williams@idg.com

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