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Drone News – April 21, 2016
FAA Approves Commercial Operation of Drones at Night
Wall Street Journal
The Federal Aviation Administration has issued the first approval for flights of small commercial drones at night, according to lawyers for the operator, in the latest sign of how quickly U.S. regulators are moving to authorize expanded uses of unmanned aircraft.
Responding to pent-up industry demand for more flexible rules, the move will allow the U.S. unit of Toronto-based Industrial Skyworks Inc. to perform nighttime inspections of buildings and roofs with specially equipped drones flown by trained pilots—and under a spate of additional safety conditions.
But the FAA’s decision, which could set an important precedent for the nascent industry, highlights that agency leaders are discarding or revising earlier operating restrictions for unmanned aircraft systems as part of the policy shift that seems to be gaining speed.
Until the exemption was granted this week, agency officials repeatedly said any operations of drones after sunset—even small models or ones with enhanced safety features—would have to wait until further tests, analyses and formal rules were completed. The flights still must be conducted within sight of the operator on the ground.
An FAA spokeswoman didn’t have any immediate comment. But in a detailed, 24-page decision, John Duncan, head of the FAA’s flight-standards service, laid out the reasoning behind the new conclusion. The decision capped an administrative proceeding that stretched some 16 months.
In addition to requiring anticollision lights on the drone visible to pilots of manned aircraft and anybody else at distances up to 5,000 feet, the operator agreed to notify agency officials days before certain flights commence. Also, the person controlling the drone will be a traditional pilot with the required medical certificate plus mandatory training in night flights; the unmanned vehicle must automatically provide the pilot with its precise location and altitude; and the company pledged to halt or land flights immediately in case of serious technical glitches, or if unauthorized vehicles, individuals or aircraft encroach on the area. Nighttime roof inspections with specialized sensors can be helpful in detecting budding structural problems.
FAA officials “took their time to carefully evaluate our application,” but in the end “we demonstrated that nighttime (operations) can enhance commercial missions while reducing risks to people and property,” according to Kenneth Quinn, the company’s attorney and head of the aviation and drone practice in Washington, D.C., for Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw and Pittman LLP.
The approval comes weeks before the FAA is expected to issue long-awaited rules for widespread commercial operations of small drones, covering an array of uses ranging from airborne photography to agriculture to inspections of power lines, pipelines and cell towers. So far, such unmanned vehicles have been conducting commercial flights based on thousands of individual exemptions previously OK’d by the agency. But demands for a different system have been growing dramatically, particularly as Congress prods the agency to open up more uses and the FAA projects that a total of more than seven million drones may be purchased over the next 15 years by hobbyists, average consumers and would-be commercial operators.
On Wednesday, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta told a drone-industry conference in Florida the agency was pushing hard to change traditional safety practices to be more nimble and responsive. “We’re growing and learning all the time,” Mr. Huerta stressed in his prepared remarks. “Clearly there is a middle road, where safety and innovation coexist on relatively equal” footing, “and we feel like we’re hitting a sweet spot lately.”
In the decision document, the agency emphasized that “operations at night pose a higher safety risk because the reduced visibility makes it more difficult for the remote pilot to visually locate” drones, or “determine the relative separation with other aircraft” to avoid potential collisions.
Still, the FAA determined there would be adequate safeguards to allow operations in the dark. For starters, the agency noted the company had experience flying drones at night in other countries. Moreover, roof-inspection drones slated for this country will fly preprogrammed routes, taking off and landing only from locations that will be illuminated. And the FAA is mandating the operator to formally notify other potential airspace users of its plans, and to coordinate with agency air-traffic control facilities to prevent possible conflicts.