The U.S. will take another step towards regular commercial flight of drones on Friday when the Federal Aviation Administration closes a two-month public comment period on proposed rules.
Over 3,600 comments have been submitted as part of the process, which seeks feedback on regulations that would allow companies to fly drones, provided they remain within line of sight, stay below 400 feet and don't fly over people. Drones also can't be flown within 5 miles of an airport, unless the airport has been notified and given clearance for the flight.
Currently, commercial operation of unmanned aircraft is banned unless a company applies for and gets a special waiver, but the new rules will change that. They are expected to enter force in late 2016 or early 2017.
The comments received, available for viewing on the web, are a mixed bag. Some question why it's taking the FAA so long in coming up with these rules, some ask for less restrictions and others request more restrictions. Many come from members of the Academy of Model Aeronautics, worried that model aircraft might end up being bound by the more restrictive flight rules for drones.
In the closing days of the period, some companies and organizations have been having a say.
NASA asked the FAA to remember that it has special dispensation as a government agency to approve its own flights and wants that recognized in the final regulations. And the National Transportation Safety Board offered some suggestions on how notification and investigation of drone accidents might be worked into the overall plan.
"This is a good first step," said Brian Wynne, president of The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUSVI), a trade group that counts more than 600 companies as members. "However, we need to permit more expansive uses of [drones] than those contemplated in the draft rules, otherwise we risk stunting a still-nascent industry, and restricting the many great uses of this technology."
In a conference call with reporters, Wynne said he wants to see the FAA adopt a risk-based, technology-neutral approach that manages restrictions on drone flight based on what wants to be done, where it will be done and how it will be done.
He also criticized the FAA's restriction on line-of-sight, saying it is vital for industries like agriculture to allow drones to fly beyond the view of the operator, and the restriction on daytime flight, saying drones have lights and are easier to see at night.
Once the comment period is closed, the FAA will begin examining the submissions for possible inclusion in its proposed regulations.
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 [email protected]