In March, FAA issued an "experimental ruling" which allows Amazon to conduct outdoor testing of delivery drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), for the company's planned Prime Air service. Prior to that decision, Amazon couldn't even make a demonstration video in the U.S. It got so frustrated with FAA's stance on the issue that it threatened to move basic research and development of drone technology outside the country.
FAA has been grappling with the drone issue for the last several years, prodded by growing interest in the craft for such purposes as surveying, photography, security, disaster response and, of course, delivery of packages. In February of this year, the agency issued its long-awaited guidelines on the operation of drones, or what it calls "small unmanned aircraft systems (UASs)." The move brought a measure of clarity to the issue, which has been clouded by the distinction between drones for commercial use and those operated by hobbyists.
Still, FAA's proposed rules disappointed the commercial sector on some key points. Chief among them was the agency’s insistence on maintaining "visual line of sight" between the drone and its operator or observer. That restriction pretty much rules out the use of drones as envisioned by Amazon or its counterparts, who want to be able to fly packages to customers over routes that might stretch for miles. In addition, the drones would be limited to daylight operating hours and a maximum altitude of 500 feet, and operators would have to obtain a certificate for flying small unmanned aircraft.
Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) responded to FAA's ruling on Amazon by promising to introduce legislation that would allow for expanded use of drones in such operations as surveying and crop mapping. The bill reportedly has already received significant support within Congress – pushed, perhaps, by business's growing impatience over FAA’s failure to take a more enlightened view of commercial drones.
They might also be concerned that the U.S. could fall behind in the development of drone technology – a sensitivity upon which Amazon was surely playing, when it threatened to shift R&D abroad. The company's initial demonstration flights were said to have taken place in Canada. In addition, U.K.-based researchers were planning to deploy drones for studying the Amazon forests of Brazil (that's the tribe, not the e-commerce behemoth).
When it comes to peaceful use of the technology, drones could prove valuable for much more than delivering packages to a consumer's doorstep. They could be invaluable tools for exploring disaster sites that are too dangerous for humans to enter. They could detect environmental trends and damage in remote areas. They could even participate in rescue operations – imagine a drone dropping a life preserver to a drowning swimmer, while he or she awaits rescue by a lifeguard or human-piloted craft.
Microdesk, Inc., a design consulting firm specializing in architecture, engineering and construction (AEC), sees drones as playing an important role in that sector. Other important applications, it says, include real estate and parcel delivery. But it’s that last category that has received the most public attention of late, driven by the apparent desire of Amazon chief executive officer Jeff Bezos to rule the world of commerce (if not the world, period).
Peter Marchese, senior consultant with Microdesk, views FAA's proposed requirement for line-of-sight control of drones as a major obstacle to the technology's progress. It's just not feasible for an Amazon or other commercial operator to have people on that ground for that purpose, he says. "They're not going to have somebody manning [a drone] every single time. At least I don't see that in the long term."
FAA appears worried that the current state of drone technology doesn't guarantee absolute safety without that level of strict control by the operator. Marchese likens the issue to the nascent development of driverless vehicles, which in their early stages might require a dedicated lane for operation. In fact, the two innovations are likely to depend on the same kind of object-sensing capability in order to function properly.
At the very least, says Marchese, the FAA’s latest ruling "is now allowing people to start doing things." That’s better than the agency's previous stance against the use of virtually any kind of unmanned aerial craft that doesn't fall under the category of model airplane.
An obvious irony is that the U.S. military harbors no doubts about the efficacy of today's drones – even if the craft are far from accurate in their pinpointing of hostile targets. The U.S. Army is even incorporating the technology into full-sized helicopters.
Future drones are likely to take many forms. Google is testing an unmanned, fixed-wing plane that is equipped with rotors for vertical takeoff and landing. The craft is said to be more like a driverless highway vehicle than one of the small, robotic drones that Amazon is developing.
One can argue over the practicality of drones in many environments, and whether the expense of building and maintaining them can ever be recaptured through delivery fees. Even Amazon admits that it will be years before drones are as ubiquitous as earthbound delivery vehicles. Others doubt whether that future will ever arrive.
Still, that's no excuse for regulatory foot-dragging. While it's essential to ensure the safety of the nation's air traffic, FAA needs to step up the pace of considering the technology and its real-world application. The ultimate judges as to the suitability of drones for commercial use should be economics and the customer, not government bureaucracy.