The Federal Aviation Administration finalized new rules for small, unmanned drones that could pave the way for expanded commercial uses of the vehicles, including delivery services.
For the first time, the FAA will allow small commercial drones to fly short distances over people and at night without a waiver. Small drones will also be permitted to fly over moving vehicles under limited conditions.
In a change from a previously proposed draft of the rules, drone operators must also have their remote pilot certificates on their persons and ready to be displayed if challenged by the authorities.
The rules apply to drone operators who use their unmanned aircraft for work or business under the FAA's Part 107 regulations. As many as 1.7 million drones have been registered with the FAA, as well as more than 203,000 drone pilots, the agency said.
"The new rules make way for the further integration of drones into our airspace by addressing safety and security concerns," said FAA Administrator Steve Dickson. "They get us closer to the day when we will more routinely see drone operations such as the delivery of packages."
The agency said it submitted the rule changes to the Federal Register and expects them to be published in January. The new regulations will take effect 60 days after publication.
The new rules mark a significant step forward by the US government toward a future of commercial drone deliveries, a vision outlined by Amazon as far back as 2013. Since then, the FAA's development of drone regulations has progressed in fits and starts, prompting critics to worry that other countries could pull ahead and gain a critical first-mover advantage in drone-based commerce.
Industry advocates said there are still many steps ahead before that drone delivery can go mainstream in the US – such as opening up the rules to allow routine drone flights beyond an operator's visual line of sight.
Those types of expanded operations "are critical to fully realizing the promise of [drone] technology to deliver innumerable economic and societal benefits," said the Small UAV Coalition, an industry advocacy group.
Last year, UPS and Wing — a sister company to Google — became the first companies to gain FAA approval to operate a drone airline. In August, Amazon received the same approval certificate. Amazon has set a goal of completing drone deliveries within 30 minutes or less of an order being placed.