The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration is taking its first major step toward opening up the skies for commercial drone use, allowing six TV and movie production companies to use drones to shoot video.
Commercial flight of drones has been effectively banned by the FAA as it grapples with how to integrate drone traffic into controlled airspace while not compromising the safety of existing air traffic. But as the months have passed, it has come under increasing pressure from U.S. companies to make a ruling.
Online retailer Amazon.com has been one of the most vocal, warning that it would take development of parcel-delivery drones overseas if the FAA doesn't allow commercial use soon, and numerous other companies in the movie production, agriculture, environmental and energy industries have also been lobbying to allow their drones to fly.
"There has been a lot of interest around this technology recently," said U.S. Department of Transport Secretary Anthony Foxx, recognizing the role the pressure played in reviewing the issues.
Foxx was speaking on a telephone conference call with FAA Administrator Michael Huerta where they announced that limited use of drone technology wouldn't pose a problem to existing users of airspace.
Thursday's deal with the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) will allow six companies to operate drones over controlled areas of movie and TV sets. The drones will be flown by licensed pilots and won't fly at night, and details of any accidents will have to be filed with the FAA.
A seventh production company has applied to the FAA and its application is under review.
Chris Dodd, a former Democratic senator from Connecticut and now chairman of the MPAA, called the FAA's decision "a great victory" for both the industry and audiences.
The seven movie production companies make up a portion of the roughly 40 applications the FAA has received from various industries for drone use.
Commercial trials are already taking place in other countries.
On Wednesday, Deutsche Post DHL said it would begin testing a drone to deliver medicines to the small German island of Juist in the North Sea about 12 kilometers north of the European mainland. The "DHL parcelcopter" can carry up to 1.2 kilograms at a speed of up to 18 meters per second, and requires a restricted flight area to protect it and other aviation users.
Martyn Williams covers mobile telecoms, Silicon Valley and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Martyn on Twitter at @martyn_williams. Martyn's e-mail address is [email protected]