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Apple will need the FAA’s blessing if it wants to use drones to improve its Maps

It’s not yet legal to fly over busy roads.

Drone in Flight Bruce Bennett / Getty

Apple wants to fly drones to improve Maps by collecting more up-to-date information about road changes and street signs, according to a Bloomberg report.

Right now, however, it's illegal to fly drones over busy, populated areas and near airports, although the rules are still being written.

Customers have long complained Apple Maps doesn’t work very well, turning to Google’s rival mapping app instead. Google has amassed tons of data driving camera-laden vans down every street to build what may be the most comprehensive maps app in the world.

The Cupertino company requested a waiver to fly drones for aerial photography last year, before the federal rules for commercial drones were finalized. Apple requested permission to fly 11 different types of drones, including aircraft from Parrot’s senseFly, three from DJI and one of Intel’s AscTec Falcon 8 drones.

Apple was granted the exception in March, but it plans to operate drones largely over private property, not over crowded public roads where Apple really needs data to improve the Maps app.

This month the FAA is expected to release a proposal for new rules that would dictate how drones will be allowed to fly over people. If Apple truly does hope to use drones to improve Maps, the company will likely have to get involved in the FAA rulemaking process. Recode reached out to Apple to ask if the company plans to engage with the FAA’s rule process, but the company didn’t immediately respond.

Apple could become an unlikely ally of Amazon, Alphabet and Facebook in its drone efforts. Amazon, which wants to deliver goods by drone, has been involved for years trying to work with the FAA to craft drone policy, but it has been frustrated by the FAA’s slow pace. Alphabet and Facebook have also been involved.

Unlike its competitors, Apple so far hasn’t indicated any plans to build its own drones. The hardware giant even sells DJI drones at its flagship stores.

If the new FAA rules do include privacy provisions that, say, prohibit collecting video or images over populated areas, Apple’s plan to fly drones to improve Maps may not pan out.

If Apple does decide to throw its hat in the game and weigh in on the FAA’s policy-making process, it will join the ranks of companies like AT&T and UPS, all of which envision a future where drones can play a central role in how they serve their customers, collect data and improve their products.

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