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Amazon Delivery Drones: All Dressed Up and Nowhere to Go

When Amazon first made public its plans to use drones for package delivery, the company said that the project would be on hold until federal regulators write rules for the commercial use of unmanned aircraft.

Now that they have, Amazon has regretfully acknowledged that its Prime Airprogram will remain grounded. At least in the United States, that is, as the ecommerce giant is hinting that it will pursue drone delivery in foreign markets that offer a more favorable regulatory environment.

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration issued its proposed rules for drones – unmanned aerial systems, in longhand – last Sunday, including a provision that “would bar an operator from allowing any object to be dropped from the UAS.” The FAA’s framework would also set weight limits on the aircraft and require that a human operator maintain a line of sight with the vehicle. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos had said the drones in the Prime Air pilot program would be autonomous, put in motion by a set of instructions and GPS coordinates.

“The FAA’s proposed rules for small UAS could take one or two years to be adopted and, based on the proposal, even then those rules wouldn’t allow Prime Air to operate in the United States,” Paul Misener, Amazon’s vice president of global public policy, said in an emailed statement.

“The FAA needs to begin and expeditiously complete the formal process to address the needs of our business, and ultimately our customers,” Misener said. “We are committed to realizing our vision for Prime Air and are prepared to deploy where we have the regulatory support we need.”

An Amazon spokeswoman declined to comment on any details of the company’s plans beyond Misener’s statement, but did hint that it may be looking to roll out drone delivery in non-U.S. markets.

“The important thing to note is that these are U.S.-only rules, meaning the last sentence in the statement is key,” the spokeswoman said in an email.

Amazon billed the immediacy of delivery as a cornerstone of its Prime Air program, through which it envisions packages could arrive within 30 minutes of the customer placing an order. And, indeed, there appears to be an appetite for that type of service. In a recent survey of U.S. consumers, the public relations firm Walker Sands reported that 77 percent of respondents said they would be willing to pay extra for drone deliveries that arrived within an hour, and four in five said expeditious drone delivery to their door would make them more inclined to shop with a retailer.

But if drones aren’t ready for takeoff in the United States, where, then, might Amazon look to make Prime Air a reality? Europe seems a dim prospect, according to George Lawrie, research vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research, who is based in London.

“I believe that densely populated countries in Europe will have even stricter rules about this,” Lawrie said. “We have a lot of “news” about near misses between drones and airliners just as you do.”

What about China? Alibaba’s Taobao Marketplace has launched trials in three major cities in the world’s most populous country, though the company’s Jim Erickson noted in a blog post that regulations remain an obstacle, and “officials aren’t hinting that drone-delivery service is ripe for commercialization.”

“Alibaba characterized the three-day trial as a “one-off campaign,”” Erickson wrote.

Dense urban environments present a host of challenges for drone operations, ranging from the obvious safety concerns to privacy considerations.

“Might the climate be more friendly to drones in the trackless wastes of Canada and Australia?” Lawrie suggested.

Canada has permitted the use of commercial drones for several years, requiring that operators obtain a Special Flight Operations Certificate, and that country is home to a not-for-profit center whose stated missions is “to facilitate sustained, profitable growth in the Canadian civil and commercial unmanned systems sector.”

Google has been testing a drone-delivery program in Australia, where regulators have been finalizing their rules for drone usage, but have a mechanism in place to accommodate trail runs of the technology.

Rumors have also surfaced that Amazon could be trialing Prime Air in India.

In the meantime, the use of drones for ecommerce delivery remains highly unsettled, but it seems clear enough that Amazon and others are going to continue to press the issue at home and abroad.

Kenneth Corbin on Linkedin
Kenneth Corbin
Kenneth Corbin
Kenneth Corbin is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C. He has written on politics, technology and other subjects since 2007, most recently as the Washington correspondent for InternetNews.com, covering Congress, the White House, the FCC and other regulatory affairs. He can be found on LinkedIn.