An extra 200 vertical feet have been added to drone fly-zones, and officials announced that the “blanket” altitude authorization for drones used by the government, industry, the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization, and some commercial companies that have exemption is now 400 feet.
“This is another milestone in our effort to change the traditional speed of government,” said FAA Administrator Michael Huerta in the announcement. “Expanding the authorized airspace for these operations means government and industry can carry out unmanned aircraft missions more quickly and with less red tape.”
Four hundred feet is about as high as a 30 to 40-story building, or as the FAA puts it: “If you lose sight of your unmanned aircraft, it is probably above 400 feet.”
Doubling the altitude shouldn’t interfere or raise the number of drone encounters (“close calls,” if you will) with helicopters, planes, or other larger manned aircraft, either: The FAA’s decision comes just after a report released on Friday that proved that there are actually very few accidents that happen below 400 feet. Researchers at Bard College analyzed 582 drone incidents across the United States from August 2015 to January 2016 and found that every 10 incidents happen lower than 400 feet. On top of that, the median altitude of dangerous close encounters (which only makes up a third of all incidents reported to the FAA) was about 2,000 feet.
However, the FAA says that the elevated altitude explicitly excludes model aircrafts, including those for commercial use. So it sounds like companies hoping to launch a campaign of delivery drones still have to ask the FAA for permissionto fly and test drones. The FAA has already approved Amazon’s Prime Air program for testing in April 2015, capping altitudes at 400 feet and speeds at 100 mph.
Amazon’s Vice President for Global Public Policy, Paul Misener, has expressed his frustrations towards strict drone regulations, telling Yahoo Tech in January that the FFA must begin “planning for the rules that are more sophisticated, that go to the kinds of operations that Amazon Prime Air will encompass.”
Delivery men and women don’t have to worry just yet, but the lifted baseline altitude is a step forward in giving agencies and companies a little more wiggle room with their drone flying.