For companies that want to use small drones, a new era began Monday.
That's when rules kicked in that free them from having to request special permission from the federal government for any commercial drone endeavor — a waiver process that often took months.
According to a Federal Aviation Administration estimate, there will be 600,000 commercial drone aircraft operating in the United States within the year as the result of new safety rules.
Although industry experts say the FAA's new rules on commercial drones largely make it easier for companies to use the unmanned aerial vehicles, there are still a lot of constraints.
Here's what you need to know.
WHAT DO THE RULES SAY? Operators must keep their drones within visual line of sight — the person flying the drone must be able to see it with the naked eye — and can fly only during the day, though twilight flying is permitted if the drone has anticollision lights. Drones cannot fly over people who are not directly participating in the operation or go higher than 400 feet above the ground. The maximum speed is 100 mph.
Drones can carry packages as long as the combined weight of the drone and the load is less than 55 pounds.
Before Monday, people needed a pilot's license to fly a commercial drone. Under the new rules, people over age 16 can take an aeronautical knowledge test at an FAA-approved facility and pass a background check to qualify for a remote pilot certificate.
WHAT IF COMPANIES HAVE PLANS THAT WOULD BREAK THOSE RULES? Businesses can apply for a waiver of most of the operational restrictions as long as they can prove their proposal will be safe.
Arthur Holland Michel, co-director of the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College, said the new waiver process will probably help regulators understand how companies want to use drones beyond these initial, limited regulations. That could one day lead to rules for more complex drone operations.
WHAT TYPES OF INDUSTRIES WILL BENEFIT MOST FROM THESE RULES? Real estate, aerial photography, construction and other industries that want to use drones for basic functions, such as taking a few photos or videos of a property, probably will benefit the most because their plans align more closely with the regulations, industry experts said.
WHAT ABOUT DRONE DELIVERY COMPANIES? Although the new rules allow drones to carry loads, the visual line-of-sight rule and the weight restriction will keep more ambitious companies with plans for long-distance travel, such as Amazon, from making significant deliveries that way.
WILL THESE RULES LEAD TO A HUGE INCREASE IN COMMERCIAL USE OF DRONES? It's hard to tell because the industry is so new, Michel said.
The elimination of the pilot's license requirement lowers the barrier to entry, but it's not clear whether users will think it's worthwhile to invest in drone operations with the current restrictions, he said.
Gretchen West, senior adviser at the law firm Hogan Lovells and co-executive director of the Commercial Drone Alliance advocacy group, said she expects to see a rise in use once the rules take effect.
But regulations are only one obstacle to wider adoption of commercial drones, she said. Many enterprise companies are averse to risk, and issues surrounding privacy and public perception still need to be addressed.
"There's still a lot of challenges we have to overcome as an industry to prove the value of drones, even outside the regulatory environment," West said.