One shred of solace that surfaced as hurricanes and tropical storms pummeled Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico last fall was the opportunity to see drones realize some of their life-saving potential.
During those disasters unmanned aircraft surveyed wrecked roads, bridges and rail lines. They spotted oil and gas leaks. They inspected damaged cell towers that had left thousands unable to call for help. “Drones became a literal lifeline,” former Federal Aviation Administration chief Michael Huerta told the agency’s drone advisory committee in November.
The drones used needed a special exemption from a set of FAA rules, known as Part 107, that normally require small drones to fly below 400 feet, stay within the operator’s visual line of sight and avoid populated areas.
These regulations make it hard for commercial drones to operate in the United States. But last October the Department of Transportation took a big step: It invited state and local governments to partner with universities and companies on tests to speed the integration of drones into the national airspace. The FAA is reviewing 149 proposals and plans to choose five to 10 by mid-May.