Flying robots get FAA approval in first for drone sector

FAA okays first-ever autonomous commercial drone use without a human operator on-site.
Written by Greg Nichols, Contributing Writer

The FAA has authorized its first-ever approval to a company for use of automated drones without human operators on site. The move comes as the agency is putting new rules in place to evolve regulation of the broader enterprise drone paradigm in the U.S., which has lagged behind other developed nations in adopting industry-friendly commercial drone guidelines.

Boston-based American Robotics, a developer of automated drone systems specializing in rugged environments, received the FAA approval last week, marking a first for the federal agency.

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"Decades worth of promise and projection are finally coming to fruition," says Reese Mozer, CEO and co-founder of American Robotics. "We are proud to be the first company to meet the FAA's comprehensive safety requirements, which had previously restricted the viability of drone use in the commercial sector."

Over the last few years, UAV firms have worked closely with the FAA to set safety parameters and demonstrate the working state of drone technology. American Robotics' approval comes after a four-year testing program around its Scout line of UAV products. During recent tests the company put its UAV through up to ten automated missions per day.

At the end of 2020, the FAA announced final rules for Unmanned Aircraft (UA) requiring Remote Identification (Remote ID) of drones and also allowing operators of small drones to fly over people and at night under certain conditions. The rules were a step toward loosening tight restrictions on commercial drone use, although some in the sector took issue with the FAA's decision on tracking, citing privacy reasons. Nevertheless, it's clear the FAA is coming to terms with a big future for commercial drones. 

"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 of the December rulemaking decision. "They get us closer to the day when we will more routinely see drone operations such as the delivery of packages."

Autonomy and the ability to fly without an operator could have huge repercussions for drone adoption in a variety of industries. An automated drone workflow for data capture applications in sectors like agriculture and environmental sciences, for example, opens up a huge low-cost data collection opportunity for an array of end users. It's not far-fetched to envision mid- and even small-sized farmers using an automated drone to monitor soil and crop health in real time, for example, something that would be prohibitive with current FAA restrictions.

"Our interest in American Robotics' technology started with the desire to have a drone imagery solution that was reliable, scalable, and executed with minimal human resources," explains Lance Ruppert, Director of Agronomy Marketing and Technology at Growmark, Inc., a leading U.S. grower cooperative. "This technology, along with the FAA approvals to operate it without humans on the ground, is key to making drones a widespread reality in our industry. This is a game changer."

It's also a big moment for enterprise drone firms, which are preparing for a booming commercial drone market.

"With this set of approvals, American Robotics can begin safely operating our automated Scout platform for the benefit of the energy, infrastructure, agriculture, and security market verticals, helping unlock the projected $100 billion commercial drone market," says Mozer.

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