Rejoice! Rejoice at the sound of common sense prevailing. Because, finally, drones in the US will be allowed to fly beyond the line of sight of their human operator, a major obstacle to making drone deliveries a reality.
What’s this all about? Well, Amazon and Google’s parent company Alphabet have both been developing capabilities to deliver packages autonomously via drone, with the latter hoping to start commercial operations next year. But a somewhat odd ruling had forbidden them from flying their drones beyond line of sight (BLOS). Which basically meant that, well, drones couldn’t actually deliver anything.
However, the White House has just announced that it has given Alphabet permission to begin testing BLOS capabilities – although they still have to remain under 120 meters (400 feet) as per an existing ruling. Specifically, the move allows Alphabet to test its Project Wing delivery drones, which it wants to use to deliver packages within a radius of 8 kilometers (5 miles) in just five minutes, at one of six test sites operated by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
“Project Wing is planning for the testing to include operations with external cargo loads and to build towards beyond line of sight (BLOS) capabilities,” the White House said in its statement.
The announcement is part of a range of developments announced by the White House as part of a major new commitment to drones. This includes $35 million in funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) over the next five years to understand how to “intelligently and effectively design, control, and apply UAS [unmanned aircraft systems] to beneficial applications.”
In March 2015, Amazon was given approval by the FAA to begin testing its own drones. But in those trials, the drones had to remain in sight of the pilot. It’s been a slow march to this latest ruling allowing testing beyond line of sight, but we’re getting there – albeit probably slower than drones themselves are developing.
Just recently, Amazon was given permission in the UK to begin trials addressing some of the issues surrounding drone deliveries, including flying beyond line of sight.
The announcement from the White House also revealed that the regulations regarding drone racing, an emerging sport where drones race around pre-set courses, would be better defined. “As drone use has grown exponentially over the last year, the sport of drone racing has exploded in popularity,” said the White House. Guidelines and safety measures will be drawn up by the Drone Racing League (DRL), which bills itself as the “premier drone racing league”.
Looks like the age of the drone is nearly upon us.