The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has moved the US’ widespread commercial exploitation of drones another step closer. It has authorised a company to deploy automated drones onsite without human operators present.

Boston-based automated drone specialist American Robotics received the authority’s approval last week, in the latest move to ready US airspace for an era of unmanned, autonomous, or remotely piloted flight.

“Decades worth of promise and projection are finally coming to fruition,” Reese Mozer, CEO and co-founder of American Robotics, told ZDNet.

“We are proud to be the first company to meet the FAA’s comprehensive safety requirements, which had previously restricted the viability of drone use in the commercial sector.

“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.”

In December, the FAA announced its latest rules for unmanned aerial vehicles, requiring remote identification and allowing operators of small drones to fly them over people and at night – under certain authorised conditions.

Moves are certainly continuing apace to open up the sector. For example, in September 2020, the FAA granted Amazon Prime Air permission to fly short-haul delivery drones beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS), which finally makes drone deliveries into a commercial proposition.

The ecommerce behemoth joins delivery giants UPS, FedEx, and others in live-testing the concept in areas of low population density.

The autonomous drones that Amazon is trialling have a range of 15 miles and can carry packages of up to 5lbs/2kg in weight. Using these drones, it plans to deliver parcels to doorsteps within 30 minutes of receiving an order.

However, concerns remain over the air traffic management and nuisance aspects of commercial, unmanned, and/or autonomous flights taking off at scale.

To take the US as an example, in that country Amazon delivers 2.5 billion packages a year, while FedEx delivers three billion, and UPS nearly five billion. If just 10 percent of a combined 10 billion packages were to be delivered by drone, that would entail 2.7 million drone flights daily over US towns and cities (one billion flights annually divided by 365 days).

The air traffic management aspects of that would be colossal, while not enough attention has been paid to the safety, noise, logistical, and quality of life challenges of filling the skies with small rotorcraft and other unmanned systems.

That said, numerous commercial opportunities exist for UAVs in industries such as agriculture (where the lack of permission for BVLOS flights limits drones’ potential), offshore energy maintenance (of wind turbines and oil platforms, for example), search and rescue, security, and urban infrastructure maintenance.