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FAA Authorizes First Commercial Smart Drone Flights

American Robotics received authorization from U.S. aviation regulators this week for its Scout drone, pictured above, to operate without a human pilot or spotter on site.

American Robotics received authorization from U.S. aviation regulators this week for its Scout drone, pictured above, to operate without a human pilot or spotter on site.Photo: American Robotics

The Federal Aviation Administration greenlit American Robotics this week to become the first company to operate smart drones without needing on-site pilots or spotters, the company announced Friday.

American Robotics, an industrial drone developer based out of Massachusetts, will still need a human pilot overseeing each flight’s takeoff remotely, so the process isn’t technically 100% autonomous, as the Verge notes. Still, the decision brings the U.S. one step closer to seeing fully automated commercial drone flights.

And once companies are able to meaningfully scale automated drone operations, it could “lend efficiencies to many of the industries that fuel our economy such as agriculture, mining, transportation” and other manufacturing sectors, the FAA said in its approval documents per the Wall Street Journal. In an FAA statement released to the outlet on Friday, the agency added that “we conduct thorough safety assessments before issuing any unmanned aircraft operation approvals.”

Once in the air, American Robotics’ Scout drone operates all on its own. The aircraft autonomously navigates its predetermined flight path with the help of an acoustic detection system to alert it to obstacles such as birds or other drones to avoid mid-air mishaps. It’s also programmed to quickly land if its systems detect malfunctions and can automatically recharge at the company’s weather-proof drone housing and charging stations. These Scout drones are primarily geared toward farmers, security personnel, and estate owners in the market for aerial inspections and real-time analytics to supplement their existing property maintenance routines.

“With these approvals, American Robotics is ushering in a new era of widespread automated drone operations,” said American Robotics CEO and co-founder Reese Mozer on Friday. “With this set of approvals, American Robotics can begin safely operating our automated Scout platform for the benefit of the energy, infrastructure, agriculture, and security market verticals, helping unlock the projected $100 billion commercial drone market.”

Certain operation restrictions still apply. As per the waiver authorized by the FAA, American Robotics can only fly its smart drones in certain rural areas in Kansas, Massachusetts, and Nevada and may not exceed altitudes of 400 feet, according to the Journal.

The FAA has previously authorized beyond-visual-line-of-sight waivers for a select few companies, American Robotics included, to use self-flying drones to inspect railroad tracks, pipelines, and other industrial sites so long as a human pilot or spotter remained in the vicinity. But this week’s authorization marks a seminal legal milestone, one that paves the way for developers in the drone industry to expand operations for pilot-less aircraft. 

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