Delivery by drone – are we ready for it?

Delivery droneIf you’re under the impression that products you have ordered online recently could be delivered by drone, you’ll have to think again.

In spite of all of the speculation in recent months it looks as though delivery-by-drone (DBD) is a long way from being a legal reality. Companies like Amazon, (who have been conducting research into DBD), will first have to deal with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) who will be required to create the necessary legislative framework.

The FAA tries to put its foot down

Up until recently the FAA have turned a blind eye to enthusiasts flying model airplanes and this has led to the belief that the same might be true in regard to the low altitude flying of small delivery drones. However, it appears not. The FAA has put their foot down with a loud thump, saying that all unmanned flights of any size, and flying at any height, must come under their regulatory domain.

FAA’s drone fine decision overturned

Back in 2011 things looked like they might favor DBD. The National Safety Transportation Board (NTSB) ruled that the FAA did not have the authority to levy a $10,000 fine on a photographer who had flown an unmanned drone over the campus of the University of Virginia. The drone was used to take aerial shots for an ad for the University’s medical school. The FAA accused the photographer of reckless behavior, as the drone had gone through a pedestrian tunnel and passed within 100 yards of a nearby helipad. As a result they issued a fine notification.

The notification was overturned by the NTSB, raising the hope for future unmanned drone flights. However, in a subsequent statement, the NTSB did point-out that the FAA could at any time decide to close the loophole with regard to regulating model airplane flights.

The provision of a draft copy of drone operation rules and regulations

The chances are that the FAA will issue new rules within the next few months. But before they can do this, they must first provide the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) with a draft copy of their proposals for review. It is the OIRA’s responsibility to manage federal rules and regulations and to make sure that policies are consistent and compatible, and that there are no duplications.

In actual fact, the stance that the FAA will adopt is already known. It is pretty well certain that they will confirm that they will exact authority with regard to all drone flights. It doesn’t matter about what altitude the flights take place at; what the sizes of the drones are, or what routes they take. The end result will be to ensure that the FAA is aware of, and have total control of all flights in terms of authorizations.

Drone operators will have to be licensed

The regulations are likely to require that all drone operators should be licensed. It is also likely that flights will have to take place during the day, and at a ceiling of no more than 400 feet. The real deal killer however, is that the regulations are likely to say that any drone must always remain directly within the pilot’s line of sight. The problem is that in order to be a commercial consideration, drones are likely to have to fly 10 miles or more from their point of departure, meaning that it would be impossible to maintain direct line of sight contact.

Areas of exemption

Apparently the FAA are prepared to offer some exemptions, but these would be based on the drones passing over remote areas, or so-called “sterile areas” within which the only people who would be present would be those directly involved with the flights themselves. A number of companies have been granted these types of licenses, including oil companies carrying out surveys in Alaska. It is also reported that CNN has been given the go-ahead to start testing for the purposes of news gathering.

Unhappy Amazon left out in the cold

Unfortunately, the likes of Amazon and Google do not qualify. In response, Amazon has reportedly threatened to continue its research outside of the US; this in response to the FAA having refused their petition to undertake testing within their own legally owned grounds. They may return testing to the UK, which is where the original testing took place.  In light of the fact that Amazon’s position is one of 120 awaiting review; no early progress is being forecast.

Mark Dombroff, (partner of the law firm McKenna Long & Aldridge, and co-chair of company’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems practice group), has said that although he believes in the concept of DBD, he doesn’t think that the initial regulations being imposed by the FAA will allow it.

Contravening privacy laws

Gaining acceptance of DBD is not just dependent on the FAA. It is also believed that potential DBD operators could also come under attack from numerous other individuals and bodies with regard to enforcing their rights of privacy.

Privacy concerns are also prevalent when traditional surveillance aircraft are employed. But because unmanned drones will be relatively cheap to produce, and could be made readily available to both businesses and private citizens, the privacy issue would be one of immediate concern, with drones being able to operate at lower altitudes than traditional aircraft.

Safety first

The prime concern initially, however, is one of safety. In the latter part of 2014, a number of near collisions between drones and large aircraft were documented; the cause of many of these “near collisions” reportedly being ignorance on behalf of drone operators. It is obvious that a clear set of rules and guidelines, and indeed, education, will need to take place to minimize any risks. In fact, the FAA is now putting pressure on local law enforcement authorities to provide evidence, and witnesses with regard to “near collision” incidents.

Don’t hold your breath

In the meantime Amazon is being publicly optimistic. They believe that further elucidation of the FAA’s rules and regulations with regard to the use of drones will herald a time when DBD will be an everyday occurrence, with millions of delivery taking place every year. However, with so many concerns and issues still to be addressed, the recommendation is that at this stage, you should not be holding your breath!


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2 Comments

  1. thank you for this information

  2. The reason for puhsnig such laws is not paranoia, but paranoia is used to give a political cover for it.It feels it’s a waste of time, the entities puhsnig the states to pass laws against small UAVs are UAV businesses who mostly work for government agencies and see as a threat the emergence of hobbyists, who mostly use low cost components from China, to build quite impressive UAVs that can become products at prices that are very affordable. The skills in embedded systems many hobbyists have and the very low cost of DSP/MCU boards with impressive computing power at very low voltage are such that even hobbyists can design a self navigating UAV for photography and similar applications.So, it’s very sad because this will indeed kill the hobby, not to mention the increasingly difficult task of finding a location where one can fly without being bothered.I wish this was different The best way to stop the erosion of freedom on this wonderful hobby is taking money out of the political process .. and we know this won’t happen anytime soon, if ever.So, the only way is finding known personalities, say astronauts and colleagues, willing to come out swinging in favor of the hobby.We need guys like Buzz Aldrin or Mark Kelly .. they must be public figures with untouchable images (having walked on the moon is a good start May Be Elon Musk CEO at Space X, or perhaps even Bill Gates .. he is not a hands on geek guy, but he is well known. So, what the AMA must do is get these guys to talk, Government Connection through negotiating channels won’t work .. there must public pressure. GO get it, this is your mission ! THANK YOU

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