The Federal Aviation Administration is letting commercial drone-maker American Robotics operate drones without on-site pilots — but with a number of caveats, according to a decision recently posted on the agency’s website.
The decision is the first government approval for drone flights without on-site pilots, the Marlborough, Mass.-based company stated in a news release.
Some specifics of American Robotics’ petition for an exemption from FAA rules, a necessary step for the company to legally test the drones, are sealed because the government allowed them to be designated as proprietary. But company executives have indicated they plan to test the drones pilot-free in settings such as farms where the risk of a dangerous malfunction is low.
Under FAA rules, drones only may fly at altitudes lower than 400 feet. That regulation will apply to the testing for which American Robotics won approval.
And in the receipt waiver, an FAA official wrote: “This grant of exemption allows American Robotics to operate its proprietary Scout quadcopter unmanned aircraft (UA), with a maximum gross takeoff weight of 20 pounds (lbs.), in rural settings for the purposes of: research and development and crew training, and market surveys in accordance with the operating conditions and limitations of waiver number (a prior waiver.)”
And while the FAA is not requiring an on-site pilot, the agency nevertheless wrote in its waiver: “The operator must designate a remote pilot in command for each flight…this person has the ultimate responsibility for the entire flight and must ensure its safety.”
American Robotics co-founder and Chief Executive Reese Mozer said in a prepared statement issued after the FAA posted the waiver: “With these approvals, American Robotics is ushering in a new era of widespread automated drone operations. Decades worth of promise and projection are finally coming to fruition. We are proud to be the first company to meet the FAA’s comprehensive safety requirements, which had previously restricted the viability of drone use in the commercial sector. We are very grateful for the FAA’s willingness to work closely with American Robotics over the past four years on this precedent-setting authorization. With this set of approvals, American Robotics can begin safely operating our automated Scout platform for the benefit of the energy, infrastructure, agriculture, and security market verticals, helping unlock the projected $100 billion commercial drone market.”
U.S. grower collaborative Growmark Inc. Director of Agronomy Marketing and Technology Lance Ruppert said in a prepared statement, “Our interest in American Robotics’ technology started with the desire to have a drone imagery solution that was reliable, scalable, and executed with minimal human resources. This technology, along with the FAA approvals to operate it without humans on the ground, is key to making drones a widespread reality in our industry. This is a game changer.”
The testing of drones such as American Robotics’ for use in rural settings is separate from efforts by companies such as Amazon Inc. and Google-sibling Wing to develop drones that can deliver packages to residences and businesses in more crowded locations.