Aviation authorities prepare to fly drones ‘out of sight’; Privacy advocates warn of risks

For years there has been a cardinal rule for flying civilian drones: keep them within your line of sight. Not just because it’s a good idea, it’s the law.

But some drones have recently been allowed to fly out of sight of their pilots. They can now inspect power lines across the forested Great Dismal Swamp in Virginia. They track endangered sea turtles off the coast of Florida, guarding seaports in the Netherlands and railroads from New Jersey to the rural west.

Aviation authorities in the US and elsewhere are preparing to relax some of the safeguards they have imposed to regulate a boom in turnkey consumer drones over the past decade. Companies want simpler regulations that could open up the skies in your area to new commercial uses of these low-flying machines, though privacy advocates and some airplane and balloon pilots remain wary.

For now, a small but growing group of energy companies, railroads and delivery services like Amazon are leading the way with special permission to fly drones “out of sight”. By early July, the US Federal Aviation Administration had approved 230 such waivers, including one to Virginia-based Dominion Energy for inspecting its network of power plants and transmission lines.

“This is the first step of what everyone expects from drones,” said Adam Lee, Dominion’s Chief Security Officer. “The first time in the history of our country where we have now moved into what I think everyone expects to come.”

That expectation — of small drones with little human oversight delivering packages, assessing home insurance claims or loitering during nighttime security patrols — has driven the FAA’s work this year to draft new safety guidelines designed to further integrate drones into national airspace.

The FAA said it is still looking at how it will roll out routine operations that will allow some drones to fly beyond visual line of sight, though it has indicated the permissions will be reserved for commercial uses, not hobbyists.

“Our ultimate goal is that you don’t need an exemption for this process at all. It’s becoming an accepted practice,” said Adam Bry, CEO of California drone maker Skydio, which supplies its drones to Dominion, railroad company BNSF, and other customers with permission to fly out of line of sight.

“The more autonomous the drones become, the more they can be readily available wherever they could potentially be useful,” Bry said.

Part of that involves deciding how much you can trust that drones won’t crash into people or other planes if their operators aren’t looking. Other new rules require drones to carry remote identification — such as an electronic license plate — to track their whereabouts. And in the wake of Russia’s war in Ukraine — where both sides have used small consumer drones to launch attacks — the White House has launched a parallel effort to counter the potential malicious use of drones in the US.

At a gas-fired plant in Remington, Virginia, which powers several Washington suburbs, an Associated Press reporter in June watched as Dominion Energy drone pilots briefly lost sight of their inspection drone as it circled the back of a large fuel tank. and the top of a chimney.

That would not have been legally possible without Dominion’s recently approved FAA waiver. And it wouldn’t have been technically possible without improvements in collision avoidance technology, allowing drones to fly closer to buildings.

Previously, “you’d have to build scaffolding or let people go in with bucket trucks,” says Nate Robie, who leads the drone program at Dominion. “Now you can get in with a 20-minute flight.”

Not everyone is enthusiastic about the pending rules. Pilots of hot air balloons and other lightweight aircraft warn that crashes will follow if the FAA gives way to largely autonomous delivery drones at low altitudes.

“These drones can’t see where they’re flying and are blind to us,” said a June call to action from the Balloon Federation of America.

Wider concerns come from civil liberties organizations who say protecting people’s privacy should be a higher priority.

“There is a greater chance of drones flying over your house or your backyard as these drone operations increase out of line of sight,” said Jeramie Scott, a senior counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, who spoke about the FAA’s advisory group working Saturday. drafting new drone rules. “It will be much harder to know who to complain to.”

EPIC and other groups disagreed with the advisory group’s early recommendations, calling for stricter privacy and transparency requirements, such as an app that can help people identify the drones above them and what data they collect.

“If you want to fly outside the line of sight, especially if you’re commercial, the public has a right to know what you’re flying, what data you’re collecting,” said Andrés Arrieta, director of consumer privacy engineering at the Electronic Borders Foundation. “It seems such a low bar.”

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