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FAA Approves Fully Automated Commercial Drone Flights

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By Patrick J. Paul

On January 14, the Federal Aviation Administration approved the first fully automated commercial drone flights by granting Massachusetts-based American Robotics, Inc. permission to operate drones without hands-on piloting and “beyond-visual-line-of-site” (BVLOS) through January 31, 2023.

Weighing less than 20 pounds, American Robotics’ Scout drones utilize acoustic technology to detect and avoid other airborne obstacles. The part 107 waiver permits American Robotics to operate its drones along preset routes following issuance of a notice to airmen identifying location, altitude, operational area, and nature and time of activity. In addition, the waiver requires that these preset routes be flown in rural areas and below 400 feet. It is anticipated that the Scout drones will be initially used for agricultural purposes in Kansas, Massachusetts, and Nevada in part to assist farmers track crop growth through real-time imagery without substantial human involvement.

As U.S. regulators gradually become more comfortable with the operation of drones without human pilots, much of the rest of the world is already there. For example, Wingcopter, a German drone maker, recently announced its intention to utilize drones for COVID-19 vaccine deliveries between distribution hubs and remote health facilities in southeast Asia and Africa. Wingcopter intends to develop automated delivery partnerships like those in the e-commerce and food sectors. Currently, Wingcopter’s drone has the capacity to fly 25 miles at speeds up to 93 mph and with cargo weighing up to 13 pounds. As COVID-19 vaccines are being administered across the globe, drone technology may be particularly vital in delivering vaccines to those in remote areas.