Likely Growth in Drone Deliveries Prompts NTSB to Expand Its Purview

A drone descends to deliver a COVID-19 test kit to a home in El Paso, Texas. (Mario Tama/Getty Images via Bloomberg News)
A drone descends to deliver a COVID-19 test kit to a home in El Paso, Texas. (Mario Tama/Getty Images via Bloomberg News)

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The expected increase in commercial drone operations such as delivery flights is prompting accident investigators to expand the types of aviation crashes they plan to review.

The National Transportation Safety Board proposed May 20 that it adapt its criteria for when to open an investigation in preparation for a time when the skies might be packed with pilotless aircraft that could pose new risks.

Current NTSB rules governing its authority over drones were drawn up in 2010 and didn’t anticipate the growth of Alphabet Inc.’s Wing, Inc.’s Prime Air and the many others seeking to operate midsize devices for commercial purposes, the agency said in a proposed regulation.

“[The changes would] allow the NTSB to be notified of and quickly respond to UAS events with safety significance,” it said, referring to drones by the acronym for unmanned aircraft systems.

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NTSB currently investigates drone accidents only if the device weighs 300 pounds (136 kilograms) or more. The safety agency wants to create a new definition that would include drones of all sizes that have obtained Federal Aviation Administration approval for complex commercial operations. These include flights over populated areas or on computer-operated missions over long distances.

“A substantially damaged delivery drone may uncover significant safety issues, the investigation of which may enhance aviation safety through the independent and established NTSB process,” the agency said.

The smaller devices popular with hobbyists mostly would be exempt from the new NTSB definition.

The safety board has investigated a growing number of drone-related accidents, including hobbyist devices that struck helicopters.

The public has 60 days to comment on the NTSB’s proposed regulation.

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