FAA Gives Drone Delivery New Life
In 2013, Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, claimed that delivery by drone would be commonplace within five years. Six years later, not a single large commercial carrier is using drones for even a small portion of its deliveries. So what happened between Bezos’ prediction and today?
Not in my airspace
There are a number of reasons why drones have not yet been adopted as standard delivery technology. The most significant are government regulation, concerns around safety and privacy, and technological complications.
The people have spoken up against drones buzzing around their homes. A December 2018 Pew Research Center survey found that 54% of respondents did not approve of drones flying near houses, and 34% wanted their use to be limited. Only 11% of respondents approved drone usage without limits.
As far as the legal aspects of drone delivery, U.S. regulators have not yet decided whether companies that operate drones commercially may use autonomous systems where one pilot oversees multiple aircraft, which is critical for scaling. A decision is also still pending on whether drones will be allowed to fly out of sight of the pilot.
Google takes wing
The tide might be turning, though. This week (April 23), the BBC reported that Wing, a drone-delivery company owned by Google’s parent company Alphabet, has received FAA approval as an airline and will start delivering goods by drone in rural Virginia before the year is out. The “airline” status means that Wing can deliver cargo and travel longer distances than drone companies without that status.
This isn’t Wing’s first officially sanctioned foray into drone delivery. Earlier in the month, Australia’s Civil Aviation Safety Authority granted the company permission to launch a home delivery service. Australian regulations permit one pilot to operate up to 20 drones at once, and Wing had been carrying out extensive testing on that continent. The drone is also allowed to fly horizontally with miniature propellers for maximum speeds.
Doing good by drone
Elsewhere in the world, companies are using drones to deliver medical supplies in hard-to-reach or dangerous locations. Several companies are distributing blood by drone in places like Rwanda. And an Australian company is utilizing drones to dispense vaccines and other medicine on some small Pacific islands.
Wing’s FAA approval sets a precedent, and it will be interesting to see how this plays out the logistics arena over the coming year. Stay tuned.