The FAA Lets Commercial Drones Take Flight

New rules say keep below 400 feet.

Photographer: James MacDonald/Bloomberg

It took four years, several false starts and 624 detailed pages, but the Federal Aviation Administration has finally come up with new regulations governing commercial drones. Quite unexpectedly, they're flexible, farsighted -- and potentially groundbreaking.

Until now, U.S. companies wanting to use drones have had to submit to an arduous waiver process. Come August, they’ll have much wider latitude, within some rational parameters. To comply, their drones must weigh less than 55 pounds, fly only during the day, stay within an operator’s line of sight, keep below 400 feet, and steer clear of airports and crowds.

Sensibly, flying a drone will no longer require a pilot’s license, but rather a written safety test and a background check. And the FAA may grant exemptions from some requirements if companies show they can still operate safely.

These changes offer much-needed streamlining while still addressing safety concerns. More excitingly, they should also open the American airways to an array of promising new businesses.

Drones, as you may have noticed, are taking off. Around the world, they’re being used to fight wildfires, inspect construction sites, assist in search-and-rescue missions, monitor agriculture, examine utility towers and much else. They’re a revelation for photographers, filmmakers and zealous real-estate agents. A spate of startups are dreaming up new ideas for them. And the FAA’s new rules will smooth the way.

The mayhem that some drones have already caused is reason enough to proceed with caution. But with the right rules in place, this shouldn’t be difficult. Most problems that small drones could cause can be suitably addressed by existing law. And technology could mitigate more exotic worries: “Geofencing” tools, for instance, can help keep them from cruising into restricted areas, and better collision-avoidance systems should impose some order as the skies grow more crowded.

The new rules won’t make everyone happy. For one thing, they won’t allow for the delivery drones that Amazon, Google and Wal-Mart are pursuing. But technology moves fast and the wheels of governance churn slowly. The FAA has established a useful starting point -- one that should let more companies send their promising ideas aloft.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.