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Drone Rules Fly High

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    A drone flies at one of the Federal Aviation Administration’s designated drone testing sites in Rome, New York. The FAA is working to relax some of the rules for drones. (AP/Matt O’Brien)
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    Dominion Energy drone operators fly a drone to inspect areas of a power plant in Remington, Virginia. (AP/Nathan Ellgren)
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    Dominion Energy used this drone to inspect the power plant. (AP/Nathan Ellgren)
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    A small but growing group of companies, like Dominion Energy, are getting permission to fly drones “beyond visual line of sight.” (AP/Nathan Ellgren)
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    A drone takes off to inspect the Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind installation. (Courtesy of Dominion Energy Services via AP)
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For years, there’s been a basic rule for flying civilian drones: Keep them in sight. Now aviation authorities are preparing to relax some of the safeguards. Will drones fly amok?

For a decade, officials have imposed rules that included flying below 400 feet, operator safety tests, and keeping drones “within the visual line of sight.”

But as drones became more common, businesses clamored for simpler rules. A growing group of power companies, railways, and delivery services like Amazon are spearheading changes.

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has worked to meet industry expectations of allowing drones to deliver packages, assess insurance claims, or buzz around on nighttime security patrols. This summer, the FAA approved 230 waivers to fly drones out of eyesight. Autonomous drones are currently doing scores of jobs, including tracking endangered sea turtles and inspecting railroads.

Virginia-based Dominion Energy uses drones for speed, efficiency, and safety of routine inspections of its power plants and transmission lines. Last year, drones inspected over 1,200 structures—meaning line crews didn’t physically have to climb and inspect those.

Recently, Dominion drone pilots briefly lost visual contact with a drone as it flew behind a smoke stack. That wouldn’t have been allowed without the waiver. It wouldn’t have been mechanically possible either without new collision-avoidance technology for flying close to buildings.

The FAA is still reviewing drone rules. That involves deciding how much to trust that out-of-sight drones won’t crash into people or other aircraft. So far, officials say such approvals will be for commercial users, not hobbyists.

Not everyone is excited about rule changes. Pilots of hot air balloons and other lightweight aircraft warn that crashes will happen if drones have right of way at low altitudes.

“These drones cannot see where they are flying and are blind to us,” say officials from the Balloon Federation of America.

Meanwhile, civil liberties groups contend that protecting privacy should be a bigger priority.

“There is a greater chance that you’ll have drones flying over your house or your backyard as these beyond-visual-line-of-sight drone operations increase,” says Jeramie Scott of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC).

EPIC and other groups are calling for stronger privacy and transparency requirements—such an app that identifies drones and gives details about them.

“The public has a right to know what you’re flying, what data you are collecting,” says Andrés Arrieta, a privacy advocate. “It seems like such a low bar.”

Why? With new technology comes responsibilities to respect other people’s safety, wishes, and privacy.

Actions have consequences. Click to see a bubble map that shows how one event (such as relaxing drone flight rules) can lead to another.