You can't fly a drone at night. You cannot fly a drone over people. You need to be able to see it with the naked eye at all times – or have a dedicated observer who can. These rules prevent dumb drones (and reckless pilots) from bumping into people, property, and other aircraft in the sky.
But what happens when drones get smarter and can dodge obstacles themselves? This is the type of drone that Skydio builds, and it seems to have been successful in convincing the FAA to make exceptions to this VLOS (Visual Line Of Sight) rule with the naked eye.
This week, the FAA granted the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) a blanket off-line-of-sight (BVLOS) flying Skydio drone waiver to inspect every bridge across the state for four years. First and foremost, you must ensure that the bridge is not manned by random people and that it is within 50 feet of the bridge and 1,500 feet of the drone's pilot. You can find the complete waiver here (PDF).
It's not the first time the FAA has granted a BVLOS waiver. The agency has granted limited exemptions since the first drone rules were introduced. However, early exemptions were often made for a single flight or a series of flights by a licensed pilot who applied months in advance. In 2015, however, the FAA signaled that it wanted to enable the use of drones, especially out of line of sight, as soon as possible – and over the past year we've seen this happen on a larger scale.
Last October, UPS received FAA approval to operate a "drone airline" with Part 135 standard certification that allows its delivery drones to fly beyond line of sight. This August, Amazon Prime Air also received the same certification.
And in July, California Police Department Chula Vista received approval to fly their Skydio drones out of line of sight in emergency situations, as long as they don't fly higher than 50 feet above the closest obstacle, and return "as soon as possible" to the pilot VLOS back.
Even then, this “Tactical Beyond Visual Line of Sight” program for first aiders (which actually doesn't require a Skydio drone, here the PDF) required operators to fly as public safety operators in accordance with Part 91 – a permit that does not anyone can get granted.
Now, however, it is a question of dispensing with a drone for end users. Under the Standard Part 107 license, anyone can file an application to start a drone business that will run across a state for several years at a time. Sure, the FAA will likely trust a certain government agency like the NCDOT far more than a random drone pilot, but it's still a step into a future where individual, trusted pilots could legally fly a drone without constantly blinking to see it Sky.
It seems like we've crossed a threshold between the statewide waiver of State Farm insurance inspectors last January and the waiver of Xcel Energy last August for power line inspection in the eight states the company operates in.
Oh, and eschewing North Carolina is probably a good thing for bridge inspectors too, compared to some of the traditional methods of getting under a large, long platform, especially one that spans a body of water. Here is Skydio's video of how it does that.
Using this link, you can easily search all of the other companies that have received BVLOS waivers for their drone operations under Part 107: just enter 107.31 in the search box.
Update 9:58 a.m. ET: Added additional BVLOS precedents and a link for more information.