Drone Delivery Service is Coming

Shipping merchandise via drones could be revolutionary for e-commerce companies–but getting them off the ground is going to be a tough slog. Critics argue that creating a pathway for increased drone use will lead to significant safety and privacy risks. Companies like Amazon, Walmart, and Google are exploring the use of drones to deliver customer orders. However, getting FAA clearance requires going through a lengthy approval process.

The Obama administration green-lit commercial drone flights but said it wasn’t ready to let Google and Amazon launch automated drone delivery fleets out across urban areas. The regulations mark the government’s first explicit efforts to define the commercial uses for the horde of small, plastic, buzzing aircraft that are invading America’s skies. The Federal Aviation Administration said commercial drones are OK so long as the drone and its payload weigh less than 55lb, stay within unaided sight of the pilot and operators pass a test every two years. In addition, each drone must have its own pilot.

“With this new rule, we are taking a careful and deliberate approach that balances the need to deploy this new technology with the FAA’s mission to protect public safety,” said FAA administrator Michael Huerta in a statement. “But this is just our first step. We’re already working on additional rules that will expand the range of operations.” Legal issues like data privacy remain a big question mark for the FAA when it comes to drones, most of which now have cameras or motion sensors. The agency has no rules or authority to enforce any specific type of privacy laws, but it writes, “The FAA strongly encourages all UAS pilots to check local and state laws.”

Drones are not a problem for most other aircraft because they do not fly above 400ft and aren’t sharing the same airspace as passenger jets, for instance. But restrictions around airports and other hazardous zones will be needed to stop drones coming into proximity with landing or ascending aircraft. The FAA has been working with NASA to figure out how a drone delivery air-traffic control system would work. Commercial aircraft are governed by FAA’s Air Traffic Control, and in Amazon’s vision, there would be a similar central command and control network that takes in data about the position of each drone and shares it with every other vehicle connected to the network.

“Look up into the sky in 2017 and you could see drone deliveries happening on a regular basis. Moving people and stuff around the planet in an efficient way is where I want to get. Our goal is to have commercial business up and running in 2017” said Dave Vos, the head of Google X’s Project Wing drone delivery program. “Everyone can have access to the airspace,” says Gur Kimchi, who heads up Amazon’s Prime Air program. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a hobbyist or a corporation. If you’ve got the right equipment, you can fly.”

According to a note published by Deutsche Bank, delivery automation, using drones and robots, present the “biggest cost reduction” opportunity for Amazon, with an estimated 80% cost savings coming to last-mile shipping, or the shipment between the final storage hub and the customer’s home. So far Virginia is the only state in the U.S. to allow any kind of drone delivery. Earlier this year, drone startup Flirtey completed the first Federal Aviation Administration-approved drone delivery in a rural area by dropping off emergency supplies to a health clinic in Virginia.

The FAA, which regulates U.S. airspace including drones, is expected to finalize rules for commercial drones sometime this year. An early draft of the rules only allows for drones to be flown within the user’s line of sight, which would be extremely restrictive for companies looking to make deliveries by drone.