U.S. regulators for the first time allowed commercial operators of autonomous aerial vehicles to fly out of operators’ sight.

What’s new: The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration generally requires people on the ground to keep an eye on drones, but it authorized drone maker American Robotics to fly without requirement.

How it works: The company’s 20-pound quadcopters travel predetermined paths and automatically avoid collisions with birds, aircraft, and other obstacles.

  • When they’re not in the air, the drones charge their battery in a weatherproof launch pad, which also houses computing horsepower for navigation.
  • An acoustic sensing system recognizes the presence and direction of airborne objects. It commands the robot to descend if it detects an object flying within a two-mile perimeter.
  • A human technician must run through a safety checklist and inspect drones before takeoff, but these functions can be performed remotely. Flights are limited to daylight hours, altitudes under 400 feet, and limited areas in Kansas, Massachusetts, and Nevada, according to The Verge.

Behind the news: Companies can apply to the FAA for a waiver of the line-of-sight rule. American Robotics became the first company to receive one after four years of testing.

  • The agency recently issued rules governing flights in populated areas and at night — a step toward a full regulatory framework for drone delivery services.
  • Last August, the agency granted Amazon and Wing limited permission to deliver packages via drones.
  • The U.S. approach to drone regulations is relatively permissive. Most countries restrict flights to an operator’s line of sight.

Why it matters: The ability to operate without a human in visual contact is a critical step to making drone flights easier to manage and more economical to operate.

We’re thinking: Andrew used to work with Pieter Abbeel, Adam Coates, and others on reinforcement learning to get autonomous helicopters to fly stunts. He crashed quite a few copters in the process! (Safely, of course, in empty fields.) With drones now flying out of an operator’s line of sight, it’s more important than ever to subject their hardware and software to robust safety testing and verification.


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