After almost four years of delays, the US Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) has finally released its proposals for rules governing the use of "small drones" (anything under 55lbs).
It's what US drone enthusiasts have been waiting for: until now, legally speaking, drones - aka "Unmanned Aircraft Systems" (UAS) - have been a grey area.
In June last year, for instance, the FAA insisted those flying commercial drones should apply for a "special airworthiness certificate - experimental category", although confusingly, it chose not to prosecute those without them.
But despite its leniency so far, the rules also include a number of measures which could completely scupper plans by various companies - most notably, Amazon - to start drone delivery services.
The rules include:
- The drone must not go beyond the pilot's line of sight - ie. if the pilot (or "at least one person involved in the operation") can't see it, they shouldn't be flying it. Problematic if you're delivering packages in a city, where tall buildings obscure vision. The rules add: "At all times the small unmanned aircraft must remain close enough to the operator for the operator to be capable of seeing the aircraft with vision unaided by any device other than corrective lenses".
- The drone can't fly over people "not directly involved in the operation". Again, not an easy one if you're delivering to homes in the crowded streets of a city.
- The pilot will need a licence. To be fair, at the moment the FAA recommends that they have a full pilot's licence. Under the new proposals, operators will be required to "pass an initial aeronautical knowledge test", will be vetted by the Transport Safety Administration and will need to pass a new test every 24 months. Those sorts of credentials don't come cheap - in fact, the FAA has worked out it could cost just under $7,000 to qualify. So drone operators could end up simply being too expensive to make Amazon's plans viable.
Part of the problem is that the FAA only takes into consideration four potential commercial uses for small drones: photography, agriculture, search and rescue, and (weirdly) bridge inspection, although it acknowledges that the new rules "could... enable numerous new industries".
They are up for discussion for the next 60 days - although the most difficult question isn't addressed in the document: how to enforce its rules.
It's a situation the UK's Civil Aviation Authority is likely to keep a close eye on. With the number of drones buzzing around the UK's skies - and the number of commercial uses for them - on the rise, keeping businesses happy while avoiding accidents is aviation authorities' next big challenge - on both sides of the pond.