FAA Letting More Commercial Drones Fly

What Are Drones Being Used For?

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German Postal Service, Deutsche Post, Testing Drones for Package Delivery. Ulrich Baumgarten/Getty Images

While Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) still hasn’t backed off on its ban against using drones for package delivery, the agency has been granting a growing number of exemptions allowing other commercial uses for the small, unmanned aircraft.

As of February 6, 2015, the FAA had granted 24 exemptions to the agency’s federal regulation, “Special Rules for Certain Unmanned Aircraft Systems,” allowing the commercial operation of drones or “unmanned aircraft systems (UAS).”

According to the Department of Transportation, the drones allowed to fly by the exemptions to do not need FAA-issued certificates of airworthiness because they do not pose a threat to national security.

Before granting an exemption, the FAA considers how and where the drones will be used, and can impose conditions and limitations on their use. For example, all drones granted exemptions must have both a pilot and an observer while operating. The pilot must have at least an FAA Private Pilot license and a current medical certificate, and the drones must remain within sight of the pilot and observer at all times.

So far, the FAA reports it has granted 24 of 342 requests for exemptions submitted by commercial entities and individuals.

What the Drones are Doing

While they are still not allowed for package delivery, like online retail giant Amazon really wants to, drones are being used – with FAA approval – for a wide variety of commercial and public service purposes.

Drones involved in the FAA’s latest round of exemptions, for example, will be used for commercial aerial photography and surveys, and film and television production. Drones have also been authorized by use in various fields of research, including agriculture, environmental monitoring, and Earth sciences.

Of course drones are also being used by federal, state and local law enforcement and public safety agencies. Within the Department of Homeland Security, for example, Customs and Border Patrol has recently started using small drones – along with larger, Predator-type drones – to perform border and port surveillance.

What About Drones Flown Just for Fun?

Clearly, drones classified by the FAA as “Model Aircraft” and flown purely for recreational or “hobby” purposes do not require FAA exemption. However, FAA regulations do require that these drones not be flown above 400 feet or near airports and air traffic, and always within site of the pilot. In addition part of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 gave the FAA the authority to take enforcement action against model aircraft operators who operate their aircraft in a manner that endangers the safety of the national airspace system.

For example, allowing your drone to land or crash on the White House lawn could trigger FAA “enforcement action.”