American Robotics Scout drones use acoustic technology to detect and avoid drones, birds and other obstacles.
Updated Jan. 15, 2021 7:05 pm ET
U.S. aviation regulators have approved the first fully automated commercial drone flights, granting a small Massachusetts-based company permission to operate drones without hands-on piloting or direct observation by human controllers or observers.
The decision by the Federal Aviation Administration limits operation of automated drones to rural areas and altitudes below 400 feet, but is a potentially significant step in expanding commercial applications of drones for farmers, utilities, mining companies and other customers.
It also represents another step in the FAA’s broader effort to authorize widespread flights by shifting away from case-by-case exemptions for specific vehicles performing specific tasks.
In approval documents posted on a government website Thursday, the FAA said that once such automated drone operations are conducted on a wider scale, they could mean “efficiencies to many of the industries that fuel our economy such as agriculture, mining, transportation” and certain manufacturing segments.
The FAA previously allowed drones to inspect railroad tracks, pipelines and some industrial sites beyond the sight of pilots or spotters on the ground as long as such individuals were located relatively close by.
But in its action Thursday, the FAA granted American Robotics Inc., based in Marlborough, Mass., permission to fly in U.S. airspace without anyone controlling or monitoring it on site, according to
a lawyer in the Washington, D.C., office of Hogan Lovells, who represents the company and also is executive director of the Commercial Drone Alliance, an industry trade group.
The company’s Scout drones operate under predetermined flight programs and use acoustic technology to detect and avoid drones, birds and other obstacles. The Scout drones weigh less than 20 pounds and have four propellers, landing vertically like helicopters.
A statement released by the FAA Friday said “we conduct thorough safety assessments before issuing any unmanned aircraft operation approvals.”
The decision by the FAA limits operation of automated drones to rural areas and altitudes below 400 feet.
eric baradat/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images
The U.S. military routinely controls much larger, more sophisticated surveillance and attack drones from remote locations sometimes half way around the globe.
The drones have automated safeguards that will warn of malfunctions and swiftly take action to land the craft if necessary. Human monitors could be hundreds or thousands of miles distant, according to Ms. Ellman.
“Policies and regulations have lagged somewhat behind” technology leaps across the industry, she said in an interview Friday. American Robotics will lay the groundwork for other advances and accelerated growth of the industry, Ms. Ellman added, by providing “a critical step forward to growing acceptance” of an array drone uses.
The FAA’s decision, after four years of testing across eight states, is expected to quickly open up additional opportunities for larger-scale testing as well as some fledgling new commercial markets eyed by the fast-growing drone industry.
The immediate users will be agricultural operations in Kansas, Massachusetts and Nevada. But by authorizing the company’s fully automated imaging drones to routinely fly in designated zones with remote control and monitoring, the agency opened the door to a range of additional uses that eventually could include other drone models, with higher and longer flights over more-populated areas.
At the same time, industry officials said the FAA signaled its intention to rely more heavily on automation and artificial intelligence—technologies featured in American Robotics’ system—in order to open up more airspace for future uncrewed vehicles.
Some businesses that have been itching to rely on drones for inspection and surveillance needs have gotten held up by one of the FAA’s biggest regulatory concerns: how automated drones can avoid hitting other aerial vehicles.
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Over the years, regulators have required licensed drone operators to keep the devices in sight to watch for potential collisions, only granting exceptions for out-of-sight flights after a lengthy application process. Even with such regulatory carve-outs, regulators could require additional observers along the flight path.
The latest decision reflects that regulators are becoming comfortable with new technologies meant to make drones safer and less expensive to operate. Requirements for having a licensed pilot on site before takeoff and during commercial operations have held back business applications because of the expense of paying pilots, American Robotics founder Reese Mozer said in an interview last year.
To win FAA approval, Mr. Mozer said the company worked with clients, mostly in the agriculture sector, to test its automated system. During a recent growing season, the drones flew as many as 10 autonomous flights a day to capture imagery and other data for farmers and researchers to accurately track crop growth.
According to the company and other drone advocates, the decision marks a shift in traditional aviation regulations, which typically have regarded human pilots as the ultimate safety net if automated systems go haywire.
The FAA’s action comes after repeated congressional provisions, stretching back to 2012, urging the FAA and other federal agencies to rewrite regulations and policies to phase drones into the nation’s airspace.
The FAA last month established industrywide requirements for remote identification of drones, along with new safeguards for flights over populated areas and at night, as part of a separate effort to expand commercial uses of the craft. Those rules affect a substantially wider swath of drone manufacturers and operators than the approvals issued this week. The earlier moves had been particularly sought by companies such as
Wing aviation unit seeking to establish consumer package-delivery businesses using drones.
Corrections & Amplifications
The Federal Aviation Administration limits operation of automated drones to altitudes below 400 feet. An earlier version of this article and photo caption incorrectly said it was 40 feet. (Corrected on Jan. 15)
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Appeared in the January 16, 2021, print edition as ‘Automated Commercial Drone Flights Approved.’