Engineer Jeremy Spink (at left) works with injury biomechanics expert Barry Miller to set up an impact test for a drone. Photo by Eleanor Nelsen for Virginia Tech.

The Federal Aviation Administration has approved three types of drones for widespread flights.

The drones are three models in the eBee X series, lightweight foam aircraft manufactured by Kansas-based AgEagle. The approval means that anyone operating one of these drones in an applicable configuration can legally fly over people without having to seek permission for each individual operation through a complex waiver system — a radically streamlined process that will be a boon for AgEagle, according to a release from Virginia Tech.

The FAA approval process was based on test methods developed at Tech. In a release, Tech hailed the approval as “a nod to the value of Virginia Tech’s testing, the product of a collaboration between the Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership (MAAP), an FAA-designated drone test site, and injury biomechanics experts in the university’s College of Engineering.”

The Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership was formed at Tech in 2013 and became an FAA-approve drone test site. In 2016, Google’s Wing began testing commercial deliveries by drone in Christiansburg and has since expanded that project to Dallas. For background, see this story by Cardinal’s Megan Schnabel: “2 years into drone project, Wing takes Christiansburg lessons to Texas.”

Virginia Tech said in a statement that the approval for these particular drone models “marks the beginning of a broader shift in the way drone operations will be planned and conducted in the U.S.”

“This is a major, major change in how things are done,” said Tombo Jones, the test site’s director in a statement. “The rule provided the first clear understanding of what’s required to safely operate over people. Our means of compliance provided the first pathway for utilizing the rule. This approval demonstrates that that pathway is viable.” 

The fixed-wing drones in the eBee X series are commonly used for missions such as mapping, surveying, and inspections. 

Under the previous system, permission to fly over people was granted on a case-by-case basis and was generally limited to a narrow set of circumstances: A waiver would specify an aircraft, operator, flight location, and other parameters. Change any of these, and a new waiver was required. The system prioritized safety in an industry where technology was changing rapidly, but it made conducting new operations painstakingly slow and very expensive. 

When the new rule went into effect in 2021, it replaced that process with a standard that depended on a single parameter: Potential injury severity. That reoriented research around the central question of what degree of injury a drone could potentially cause if it hit someone, Tech said.