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FAA releases long-awaited changes to surging drone industry

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Posted at 3:57 PM, Dec 30, 2020

CHAGRIN FALLS, Ohio — In what many see as an open door for drone-based deliveries in the future, the Federal Aviation Administration unveiled new guidelines this week for drones and drone operators. While loosening some restrictions on night time drone operation and flights over people, current and future drones will be required to adopt remote identification, a major shift for the drone industry.

The new rules from the FAA require drone manufacturers to implement remote identification within the next 18 months. Akin to a license plate for the drone, the remote ID system broadcasts the machine's location and identification as well as the operator's location and identification. An FAA representative said this policy addresses safety and security concerns by making drones — and their owners — easier to track.

Jeff Holbury, the owner of Drone Ohio, said many pilots in the unmanned aircraft community were anticipating the FAA's adoption of remote ID.

"Generally speaking, its for the good. It's for the safety of the industry. It's for the safety of the public," Holbury said. "You have to have a license plate on your vehicle. You're flying a piece of equipment up in the sky. Why wouldn'y you want a license plate on it?"

Holbury, an FAA licensed drone operator, turned his drone hobby into a business four years ago. Under federal regulations, operators using their drones for commercial purposes are required to be licensed under Part 107 or the FAA's Small UAS (Unmanned Aircraft System) Rule. Holbury uses his small flock of drones for commercial real estate photography and videography as well as content for his popular social media channels. While Drone Ohio isn't a full time job, it does provide a steady supplemental income, he said. Most importantly, Holbury enjoys flying.

"Our motto is Drone Ohio is always having fun and that's what we do," Holbury said. "I call it a hobby that accidentally became a business. I had no intention of it becoming a business."

By in large, Holbury said the new FAA regulations -- while cumbersome and somewhat difficult to discern — make sense and should make the airspace system a safer place. Under the previous FAA regulations, Holbury would need to obtain a special waiver to operate at night. That won't be the case under the new regulations.

Drone operation over people will also be possible so long as the drone does not have any exposed rotating parts that could lacerate the skin. Holbury said there is still some confusion as to what the latter part of that requirement will look like.

The biggest change, however, is the remote ID requirement. Under the new regulations, manufacturers will have to implement remote ID in their drones by 2022 and drone operators will have to have their drones in compliance by 2023. The FAA will allow drone owners to retrofit their existing machines with remote ID modules, assuming drone manufacturers create and release such a product.

The new rules are viewed by many in the drone industry, which is by far the fastest growing segment in the transportation sector, as an entry point for future drone-based delivery networks. Major retailers and shipping providers, including Amazon, the United States Postal Service, Wal-Mart, UPS, and a Google subsidiary have all launched or announced plans to begin testing drone-based delivery systems.

In the process, however, some have expressed concern that the new guidelines will force hobbyist and recreational drone operators to become Part 107 licensed. Holbury believes, eventually, there will no longer be hobbyist drone operators.

"There's just going to be a drone pilot. You can be a commercial drone pilot or a non-commercial drone pilot but, regardless, all of your drones will have to follow these new rules," Holbury said.

According to the FAA, more than 1.7 million drones have been registered with the agency and more than 200,000 people are FAA-certified drone pilots.

RELATED: FAA will allow drones to fly at night. Amazon, UPS and others could use drones for deliveries