As Amazon takes off in the UK, strict rules bar similar moves in American skies
Three years after CEO Jeff Bezos secured a massive dose of publicity with the announcement that Amazon was working on drone deliveries, that vision is a reality.
Workers at a British fulfillment center are stuffing shoebox-sized packages—in one case with a Fire TV and some popcorn—and loading them into the belly of electric, quadcopter drones, which set off to the customer. The company claims the drones, guided by GPS and flying below 400 feet, can make deliveries within 30 minutes, from click to plop.
Now for the caveats: The service is currently available to a grand total of two customers, near Cambridge in the south of England, and the drones can only fly in daylight and good weather.
Still, Amazon is using drones to get stuff to paying customers, and it’s doing it in the UK, since even this limited sort of commercial operation is verboten in the US. Because Amazon’s drones are autonomous (no human with a remote control), and fly over the horizon (beyond a human’s line-of-sight), the FAA’s rules for commercial drone operations say they’re unwelcome in US airspace.
Amazon’s not the only drone pioneer buzzing overseas. Domino’s delivered a pizza via drone in New Zealand in August. Maersk Tankers sent supplies to a ship off the coast of Denmark in March. Google’s Project Wing brought snacks to the Australian outback in 2014. California-based Zipline is dropping badly needed blood supplies to remote clinics in Rwanda. UNICEF is working with the government of Malawi to test drones for humanitarian uses.
US airspace did get at least one flight: In July, drone company Flirtey and 7-Eleven carried donuts and a slurpee to the house of a Nevada customer. But, wow, did that take an effort. Nevada is one of six unmanned autonomous systems “Designated Test Sites” in the US, so it’s got some flexibility in the rules. Even so, the flight required special planning, risk analysis, and detailed flight procedures to ensure the drone wouldn’t hurt anyone or invade anyone’s privacy. Not exactly impulse purchase ready.
“It is unfortunate, almost tragic, that this is being done in the UK and not the US,” says Timothy Carone, professor at the University of Notre Dame, and co-author of Future Automation—Changes to Lives and Businesses. He says the FAA is too focused on protecting traditional companies (think Boeing, Airbus, and the airlines), and not open enough to new entrants. “The FAA, like most government agencies, works on times scales that are increasingly slower than the evolution of new businesses and technologies. Soon it will make decisions on technologies that are already outdated.”
Outgoing Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx, has acknowledged the problem. Under his watch, the safety-obsessed FAA opened American airspace to commercial drone flights, but with restrictions that proscribe deliveries. It’s a start, but only that. “I can’t push the FAA that fast,” says Foxx.
“The FAA has a balancing act, there are lots of players involved in this,” says Paul Kostek, an IEEE senior member at the University of Washington. America’s airspace is the world’s most crowded—try 30,000 flights daily. Kostek has worked with government and businesses on the safe integration of drones into crowded skies, and sympathizes with regulators, but says the FAA’s slow pace is troubling industry players.
The incoming Trump administration may take a more relaxed, business friendly approach to regulating the skies, but it will face objections. Pilots who have reported drones flying on their approach paths to airports, or firefighters who’ve abandoned water drops from planes because of objects in the way, won’t be happy.
It’s inevitable the US will eventually catch up, and you too will be able to get your popcorn flown in as soon as you start that
Netflix Amazon Prime binge session. But in the meantime, you may have to make do with videos of your transatlantic neighbors enjoying the benefits.