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FAA drone rules on line of sight restrict use after disasters


Federal Aviation Administration regulations requiring drone operators to maintain a visual line of sight remain a significant barrier to the use of drones in disaster prevention and recovery efforts.

“If you have to maintain visual line of sight, using drones has much more limited value and is much more difficult,” said Mark Dombroff, Alexandria, Virginia-based attorney with LeClairRyan PLLC focusing on the aviation and transportation industries.

“The technology is there to get the drone outside of the line of sight of the pilot and to do so safely and confidently,” said Jay Martin, chief operating officer of Bellevue, Washington-based aerial imagery and data analytics provider EagleView Technologies Inc.

“The regulations are still evolving, and I completely understand why they evolve at the pace that they do versus the pace of technology.” In November, State Farm received a national waiver from the FAA to utilize drones in natural catastrophe response after demonstrating the safe use of drones following hurricanes Florence and Michael. The waiver allows the insurer to fly drones beyond visual line of sight and over people — another FAA restriction — although it does not allow drones to be used from a premitigation perspective for natural catastrophes, according to a spokeswoman for the Bloomington, Illinois-based insurer.

The FAA prohibits drones from entering restricted airspace to avoid potential collisions with commercial aircraft, but its Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability program provides access to controlled airspace near airports through near real-time processing of airspace authorizations below approved altitudes for approved industry partners.

“We may think of them as drones, but in the view of the FAA these are all aircraft, and they need to follow the same safety rules as they enter the national airspace,” said Jon Hegranes, CEO of San Francisco-based drone software technology firm Inc., an approved participant in the FAA program that received a $3 million investment from Travelers Cos.

Inc. last year. “As you give employees access to drones, you want to make sure they are using them properly.” The agency must be satisfied that operators have “sufficient proficiency” in drone piloting and that the drones themselves have sense-and-avoid capabilities to prevent collisions with other aircraft before broadly lifting such restrictions, Mr. Dombroff said.


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