COVID-19 has changed a lot about civic life in the US — and around the world. Mayors and governors have issued sweeping stay-at-home orders, for instance. But while drones have made headlines with a few prominent deployments, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has not altered its strict regulations for the technology.

Drones have perhaps captured an outsized share of headlines during the COVID-19 crisis because of their novelty. Local news reports may go viral with stories of police using a loudspeaker-equipped drone to broadcast warnings about social distancing. But police generally already have permitted drone divisions. They don’t need additional permitting.

Current rules apply

The FAA has not expanded its programs for drone certification or relaxed any of its rules. Under Part 107, companies or individuals may fly drones under 55 pounds up to 400 feet in unpopulated areas. They must maintain line of sight the whole time. Applicants can apply for waivers that grant extra rights, such as the ability to fly at night or over people.

Under Part 135, a company can be certified as a drone airline. But that has happened in just a few cases. With its partner Matternet, UPS has won recognition as a drone airline. Wing, a division of Google parent company Alphabet, is operating a trial home delivery program in a small Virginia town. (It’s big news of late that it was adding coffee and pastry deliveries.) Both approvals came before COVID-19 crisis measures emerged.

Things may change with Zipline, the California-based company that has already flown tens of thousands of medical supply and sample deliveries in Rwanda and Ghana. The startup has been pursuing certification to operate in the US, and that process may get accelerated due to the needs of the pandemic.

But approvals are for the most part following the orderly bureaucratic process at the FAA. We’re not seeing a rush of expedited permitting or exemptions. As the FAA described in a brief notice this week:

The FAA is enabling drone use for COVID-19 response efforts within our existing regulations and emergency procedures. Our small unmanned aircraft rule (Part 107) and Certificate of Authorization process allow operators to transport goods and certain medical supplies — including test kits, most prescription drugs, and under certain circumstances, blood — provided the flight complies with all provisions of the rule or authorization. The FAA also issues special approvals, some in less than an hour, for flights that support emergency activities and appropriate government, health, or community initiatives. The agency’s Systems Operations Support Center is available 24/7 to process emergency requests. Safety is the top consideration as we review each request.

Photo: Goh Rhy Yan/Unsplash


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