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FAA issues first COVID-19 related drone waiver

The Federal Aviation Administration is a very conservative organization, and rules for commercial drones are strict. But the agency does have a mechanism for issuing waivers to these rules. And it appears that the FAA has finally issued its first COVID-19 drone waiver.

On April 5, an unnamed oil and gas company asked for a waiver to use drones for inspecting its equipment. With workers kept inside due to lockdown orders, robots were the only choice. The FAA approved the waiver within 24 hours. That’s something the agency has promised to do when emergencies arise but not something we have seen much of.

The waiver specifically mentions COVID-19, and the Financial Times reports that this is the first waiver issued in response to the pandemic. It grants the company he ability to operate drones “beyond visual line of site” (BVLOS). In other words, the pilot can rely on the drone’s camera to navigate and does not have to be able to see the drone with the naked eye. The waiver extends “to June 30, 2020 or the expiration of the federal, state, or local COVID-19 recommendations or requirements.” The inspection drones are provided by US-Israeli start-up Airobotics.

A rare exemption

BVLOS, as it’s called, is an important requirement for expanding drone businesses. It’s virtually a given for delivery services. If you can still see where you are sending a package, it’s probably not far enough to be worth sending a drone. But inspections of large spread-out facilities are also prime cases for BVLOS.

The exemption the company received is a piece of FAA regulation called Part 107, which sets the ground rules for small commercial drones. It requires operators to be certified and puts a number of restrictions on what they can do, without a waiver. Part 107 prohibits not only BVLOS, but also flying drones at night or flying them over people, among many other prohibitions.

The FAA has issued just over 4,000 Part 107 waivers since the regulation took effect in August 2016. Of those, just 53 have been waiver to fly beyond line of site. (Nearly 95% of waivers have been for night flights.) So the fast-tracking this waiver is a pretty big deal.

The question is whether this waiver was a one-off, or if the urgency of the pandemic lead to a more flexible, fast-moving approval process at the FAA.

Image: Airobotics



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Sean Captain is a Bay Area technology, science, and policy journalist. Follow him on Twitter @SeanCaptain.