A US government-sponsored committee is recommending standards that could clear the way for commercial drone flights over populated areas and help speed the introduction of package delivery drones and other uses not yet possible.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) currently prohibits most commercial drone flights over populated areas, especially crowds. That ban frustrates a host of industries that want to take advantage of the technology.
“Every TV station in the country wants one, but they can’t be limited to flying in the middle of nowhere because there’s no news in the middle of nowhere,” said Jim Williams, a former head of the FAA’s drone office who now advises the industry for Dentons, an international law firm.
Cellular network providers also want to loosen restrictions so drones, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles, can inspect cell towers, which often are in urban areas. Amazon’s vision for package deliveries entails drones winging their way over city and suburban neighborhoods.
The recommendations call for creating four categories of small drones that commercial operators can fly over people, including crowds in some cases.
The first category of drones would weigh no more than about a half-pound (230 grams). They essentially could fly unrestricted over people, including crowds.
For the three other categories, the drones would have to fly at least 20 feet (six meters) over the heads of people and keep a distance of at least 10 feet (3 meters) laterally from someone.
Drones in the second category are expected to be mostly small quadcopters â€” drones with multiple arms and propellers, and weighing 4 pounds (1.8 kilograms) to 5 pounds (2.3 kilograms) â€” but there is no weight limit. Whereas drones in the third category could not fly over crowds or densely populated areas.
These drones would be used for work in closed or