The U.S. took one step closer to commercial drone aviation last week when the Federal Aviation Administration granted approval to a company to operate its drones without direct human supervision and without keeping the drone in sight.
The Massachusetts-based company, American Robotics, must fly its drones below 400 feet and will be limited to rural areas. The drones’ payloads must not exceed 20 pounds.
The approval represents a pivotal inflection point in the commercial drone industry. Prior waivers and certifications awarded by the FAA required visual observers along the flight path. As a result, the value and scalability of commercial drone use in the U.S. has, until now, been drastically inhibited or in many cases eliminated, American Robotics said in a statement.
Reese Mozer, CEO and cofounder of American Robotics, believes the commercial drone market could be worth $100 billion. Mozer projects initial use in the energy, infrastructure, agriculture, and security market verticals.
“With these approvals, American Robotics is ushering in a new era of widespread automated drone operations,” said Mozer. “We are proud to be the first company to meet the FAA’s comprehensive safety requirements, which had previously restricted the viability of drone use in the commercial sector.”
“The commercial drone industry is growing quickly and providing significant benefits to the American public, but enabling expanded operations beyond visual line of sight is critical for the industry to truly take off,” Lisa Ellman, partner and chair of the Global UAS Practice at Hogan Lovells and executive director of the Commercial Drone Alliance. “Automated BVLOS [Beyond Visual Line of Sight] operations are particularly important to opening the commercial sectors to the drone economy, including the agriculture and industrial verticals.”
The FAA has been working quickly in the sector. Last month, the agency relaxed rules that allow drones to fly over people and at night. In September, the FAA awarded Amazon a certificate to allow it to begin testing drone deliveries. UPS and Wing, owned by Google’s parent Alphabet, have already received FAA approval to operate their own drone delivery services.