Federal authorities intend to finalize rules for the commercial use of drones within the next year, but even then, Amazon’s Prime Air delivery system will likely remain grounded.
That’s because the Federal Aviation Administration is signaling that it will maintain provisions included in the draft rule that would bar commercial users from sending a drone beyond a human line of sight, prohibit one person from operating multiple drones, and include restrictions on automating the operation of the devices.
Under those provisions, taken together, how will Amazon’s drone system be able to work?
“”It won’t, at least for package delivery services,” Paul Misener, Amazon’s vice president of global public policy, told lawmakers at a House hearing this week.
The way Misener tells it, Amazon has been working overtime to develop its Prime Air system and to redesign its distribution centers to accommodate the technology. The firm has also brought in aeronautics experts to help with the project, which carries the ambitious goal of moving merchandise in about as long as it takes for Domino’s to deliver a pizza.
“We have distribution facilities throughout the country, and what we’d like to be able to do is enable that network of facilities to deliver packages to customers more quickly than is currently possible using the ground-transportation network,” Misener said. “We looked into all different kinds of functionalities of how to get things to customer on a 30-minute-or-less basis, and what really works are drones.”
Wednesday’s hearing was the first in a series of sessions the Oversight and Government Reform Committee plans to hold on emerging technologies, and some lawmakers expressed frustration that the FAA is taking as long as it is to finalize the rules for commercial drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles.
“Drones are here. UAVs are here and they’re here to stay,” said Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), who chairs the Subcommittee on Transportation and Public Assets. “The rules are sketchy. The rules are incomplete.”
Mica challenged Michael Whitaker, Deputy Administrator of the FAA, on when the agency might finalize the rules, securing a pledge that they would be submitted to the administration for review later this year, and in place by next June. Mica promised to hold another hearing in a year’s time to evaluate the FAA’s progress.
Whitaker explained that his agency has been working through a litany of technical challenges to establish a framework for the use of commercial drones while ensuring that the vehicles would not disrupt other aircraft or pose other safety risks to people on the ground.
In particular, Whitaker highlighted the difficulties of equipping drones with technology to detect and avoid other objects.
“That’s a major technological challenge that has to be solved,” he said.
Whitaker also said that the FAA has been granted hundreds of waivers to permit certain commercial uses of drones ahead of finalizing the rules.
But for Amazon, which has been testing its drone systems in the United Kingdom and Canada, which offer a more flexible regulatory environment, the FAA has taken too rigid a stance in its initial proposal.
Misener acknowledged that the technical challenges are real, but argued that they are hardly unsolvable. He appealed to the FAA to scrap some of the stricter provisions in its rule proposal, adopting a more risk-based approach that would permit features essential to mobilizing an ecommerce delivery system at the scale that Amazon envisions.
“Categorical prohibitions – for example, no nighttime operations, or no operations beyond visual line of sight – make no sense and must be avoided,” he said.