The future of drones: Uncertain, promising and pretty awesome

Until this year, strict regulations threatened to put the brakes on the burgeoning drone industry. But in February, the FAA — the agency responsible for regulating U.S. airspace — released a proposed framework for the commercial use of small drones (unmanned aircraft systems weighing less than 55 lbs. (25 kg)). Under the proposed FAA rules, drones would only be permitted to fly during the day and within operators’ visual line of sight.

Many industry members were surprised by how progressive the rules were, considering the agency’s previously draconian stance on the commercial use of drones. “The proposed rules certainly weren’t as onerous as we expected,” said Colin Snow, CEO and founder of Drone Analyst, a drone research and consulting company based in Redwood City, California.

The rules will not go into effect until next summer at the earliest, but the FAA has sped up turnarounds for so-called Section 333 exemptions that let companies use drones in the interim. Between September 2014 and March 2015, the agency granted just 66 exemptions, but in April, it started fast-tracking applications that were similar to previous requests and has now granted nearly 2,000 such exemptions.

In May, the FAA introduced the Pathfinder Program, in partnership with CNN, to test drones for newsgathering in urban areas. As part of the program, the drone firm PrecisionHawk and transport company BNSF Railroad are also testing drone flights beyond the pilot’s visual line of sight. That same month, the agency also granted the six unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) test sites it helped set up around the country blanket authorization to fly any drone below 200 feet (61 meters), replacing the need to get separate approvals for every robotic aircraft. [5 Surprising Ways Drones Could Be Used in the Future]

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