New FAA Rules Double The Sky For Drone Companies

200 feet more drone-sky

Our sky is zoned for people. The Federal Aviation Administration, tasked with regulating the airspace above America, has elaborate rules for who and what can fly where. Out of an abundance of caution for human safety, the FAA tries to keep that airspace tidy, reserved for human-carrying vehicles. In a new regulation last week, they opened up just a little bit more of that sky for commercial use of drones, adding a robotic floor to the heavens.

FAA Doubles “Blanket” Altitude for Many [Unmanned Aerial System] Flights” is how the FAA framed the announcement, and that’s technically true. Another phrasing is that “drones used by businesses are now allowed to fly up to 400 feet above the ground without seeking permission from the FAA, instead of 200 feet above the ground.” This “doubling” is a 200-foot increase, which still means just a modest slice of the bottom of the sky is open to drones.

This rule change matters for companies that apply for or already have an exemption to fly drones. The FAA estimates that, by raising the ceiling to 400 feet by default, they’ll reduce the need for specific, case-by-base exemptions by between 30 to 40 percent. Pilots will still have to adhere to other regulations–like staying five miles away from airports and only flying drones that weigh less than 55 pounds–if they want to benefit from this blanket exemption. Otherwise, they’ll need a specific waiver from the FAA.

Kelsey D. Atherton
Kelsey D. Atherton

Kelsey D. Atherton is a defense technology journalist based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. His work on drones, lethal AI, and nuclear weapons has appeared in Slate, The New York Times, Foreign Policy, and elsewhere.