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FAA's Proposed Drone Rules Ground Many Commercial Aspirations


The Federal Aviation Administration is proposing rules that will allow some commercial uses for drones. But the rules are not going to please everybody. Among other things, the FAA says drones can only be flown as far as their operator can see them. That means a whole range of possible uses, from inspecting crops to even delivering packages, are, for now, grounded. NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: Amazon created a big splash when it released this video of a small package being delivered to a customer's door by drone.


NAYLOR: Amazon may be the most famous example, but it's not the only industry that would like to use drones beyond the point where their operator can see them. Greg McNeal is a professor of law and public policy at Pepperdine University and an expert on drones.

GREG MCNEAL: There are actually a lot of applications beyond just Amazon drones in which someone might want to do this. The timber industry wants to fly through a forest. But sometimes, because of trees and obstructions, they won't be able to see where the aircraft is, but they otherwise might have sense and avoid technology that will allow them to identify trees to be cut down.

NAYLOR: Or pipeline inspections or crops or think of a flying camera. Adam Bry is CEO of Skydio, a startup in Menlo Park, Calif., which is developing the technology to enable drones to fly beyond the line of sight.

ADAM BRY: From the consumer side of things, we're essentially moving towards a point where people can have a Hollywood quality cinematographer in their pocket. The potential for just awesome video there I think is enormous. On the commercial industrial side of things, any job where somebody goes and looks at something is probably going to be better done by a drone.

NAYLOR: Bry and his partners got their start on developing the technology while at MIT. He calls it an intelligent navigation system.

BRY: So we use cameras onboard the vehicle to see the world around the drone and to build up an understanding such that you can navigate intelligently so you always know where you are and also so that you don't run into stuff.

NAYLOR: It's kind of like the driverless cars that Google and others are developing, which use a combination of sensors, radar and cameras to navigate down the road. Except with drones, there are no roads. Bry says he hopes to have the first prototypes available within a year, but package delivery, he says, may be a bit further in the future.

BRY: Just because the bar for reliability is so high. If you have a drone that's carrying a five-pound package, the consequences of something going wrong are much higher.

NAYLOR: There's a two-month comment period before the FAA can make the proposed drone regulations permanent. And the final rules may not be issued for some time. But based on their initial draft, Greg McNeal at Pepperdine says regulators have gotten it right so far.

MCNEAL: The FAA's approach here was to try and create baseline regulations for the widest number of drones they could operate safely, and they're leaving the complex issues that might be enabled by technology to a future rulemaking process. This was actually really innovative on their part.

NAYLOR: Still, until beyond-the-line-of-sight drone flights are allowed, the commercial drone industry says it won't really be able to take off. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.

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