FAA may ease restrictions on drone flying

Tech giants work with FAA to ease drone restrictions

The FAA is mulling a change in proposed regulations for drones, and big tech will have its say.

The Federal Aviation Administration announced Wednesday a committee to draft recommendations for rules that could ease restrictions on operating drones in crowded or public places. The FAA has invited mostly commercial stakeholders, including Alphabet's Google X, Intel and GoPro, to the group.

The committee will start working on recommendations next month and give a final report to the FAA by April 1, when the agency will review its findings and file a proposal. It comes as business interests have ramped up pressure on the FAA and Congress for wider drone use amid concerns about public safety and privacy.

Brian Krzanich, chief executive officer of Intel Corp., right, shows the collision avoidance feature of an AscTec Firefly drone with Intel RealSense cameras during the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Patrick T. Fallon | Bloomberg | Getty Images

The rule could change how Alphabet and others integrate drones into their businesses. Ultimately, it could allow use of a wider array of drones over public spaces, benefiting not only companies who make drone deliveries but also those who sell the devices to recreational users.

"They want maximum flexibility and minimum regulatory intervention," said David Swindell, director of the Center for Urban Innovation at Arizona State University and a drone policy expert.

GoPro — which is launching a drone camera this year — said it would participate to "protect the rights of recreational users and to promote safe and responsible flying."

It is unclear whether Google X will accept a spot on the rulemaking committee. In a statement, Intel CEO Brian Krzanich said the company is "honored to contribute to the thoughtful work of the FAA." He added that drones' potential "will only be realized if stakeholders come together to address issues of concern to policy makers and consumers."

Hundreds of thousands of drone operators could now face hefty fines, or even jail time, for failing to register their aircraft with the government.
Unregistered drone users may face jail time

The committee will give guidance on operating rules for a class of drones that would be able to fly over people who are not controlling them. The FAA wants standards for the aircraft to prevent crashes and potential injuries.

Previously, the FAA proposed that "micro" aircraft under 4.4 pounds would fall into that category, but the agency will consider scrapping size requirements in favor of performance and safety standards.

"The FAA will pursue a flexible, performance-based regulatory framework that addresses potential hazards instead of a classification defined primarily by weight and speed," FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said in a statement.

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The rule could benefit big tech companies who use or sell drones. Alphabet and Amazon have led efforts to implement drone delivery. Intel makes chips for the devices.

The committee as composed, though, could leave commercial interests with much more influence over the laws than public safety groups, Swindell noted. While the FAA accepts public comment on proposals, participation is often low, he added.

Currently, companies must get special permission from the FAA to test drones. The aircraft must fly within the operator's line of sight, and they face restrictions for flight near crowds and buildings.

Wider commercial authorization is expected later this year, but it may not be coming fast enough for some companies.

Tech companies have actively lobbied Congress on drone issues. Amazon, Google, Intel and GoPro all mentioned "unmanned aerial vehicles," another name for drones, in their fourth-quarter lobbying activity.

Amazon, one of the most vocal proponents of drone delivery, was not invited to the committee this week after serving on a previous task force for consumer drone registration. The FAA declined to say why, and Amazon did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The agency requires consumers to register drones that weigh 0.55 to 55 pounds. The rules aim to keep track of the booming technology and prevent potentially dangerous flights around planes, airports and public events.