The next frontier for drones: letting them fly out of sight

REMINGTON, For years, there’s been a cardinal rule for flying civilian drones: Keep them within your line of sight. Not just because it’s a good idea — it’s also the law.

But some drones have recently gotten permission to soar out of their pilots’ sight. They can now inspect high-voltage power lines across the forested Great Dismal Swamp in Virginia. They’re tracking endangered sea turtles off Florida’s coast and monitoring seaports in the Netherlands and railroads from New Jersey to the rural West.

Aviation authorities in the U.S. and elsewhere are preparing to relax some of the safeguards they imposed to regulate a boom in off-the-shelf consumer drones over the past decade. Businesses want simpler rules that could open your neighborhood’s skies to new commercial applications of these low-flying machines, although privacy advocates and some airplane and balloon pilots remain wary.

For now, a small but growing group of power companies, railways and delivery services like Amazon are leading the way with special permission to fly drones “beyond visual line of sight.” As of early July, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration had approved 230 such waivers — one of them to Virginia-based Dominion Energy for inspecting its network of power plants and transmission lines.

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