Grounding Delivery Drones

Amazon, an online retailer, made waves in 2013 when it announced its plans to develop drones to deliver its packages. The company was by no means the first to come up with the idea, a previously proposed airborne, taco delivery system whetted many appetites, but Amazon’s sheer success caused many to wonder if delivery would be changed forever.

Plenty of naysayers opined that the service would never take off. With countless dangers out there for drones, ranging from birds of prey to hunters in Colorado, it certainly seemed difficult for a little drone to make its way safely in such an unpredictable world. With no existing regulations on commercial drone flight, the project’s future appeared uncertain. Amazon, having had previous success in bending government entities to its will, seemed confident though that with the help of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), it could make the skies a little friendlier for its fleet of errand runners.

The FAA’s recently proposed rules for drone flight, appear to have shot those hopes down. Specifically, the rules require that operators maintain a visual line of sight with drones, without the use of any visual aids other than corrective lenses. They also prohibit drones from flying over people uninvolved with their operation.

This does not mean the dream is dead. The proposal is still open for public comment and many, including Senator Charles Schumer, have called for more “business friendly” rules. This should come as no surprise since corporate interests in an airborne delivery system seem to be growing. Money spent on drone lobbying has increased from $35 million in 2011 to $186 million in 2014. Amazon is also pondering taking the service overseas, perhaps in a bid to demonstrate the program’s viability in friendlier skies. For now though, plans for delivery drones in the US appear to be grounded.

This is not to say that the possibility has been completely ruled out. Uber, an on demand taxi service, and others like it, are probably the closest to making delivery drones a reality. The company, known for its fair share of controversy, faced yet another legal setback this year when a court ruled to prohibit its operation in Spain. Instead of bullishly pushing ahead, as it has done in other countries, Uber has reinvented itself as UberEATS. Rather than ferrying passengers, Uber now bills itself as a food delivery service. While the company still uses human drivers, cars could very well serve as carriers for squadrons of drones. Uber itself has openly stated that it expects to eventually run a completely driverless service.

Amp Holdings is looking to do just this. The company is developing a drone, named Horsefly, that would launch from trucks to deliver packages short distances to customer doorsteps. Drones would be directed with the guidance of drivers. While suburban landscapes may bring Horsefly into conflict with the FAA’s proposed line-of-vision rule, the low altitude and short distance flight of the project make it much more manageable than Amazon’s intended 10-mile delivery radius.

The development of driverless cars may further pull delivery drones from the skies and onto the road. In general, states appear to be fertile grounds to develop friendly regulations for automatic automobiles. Although they have faced opposition in some states, driverless cars are now legal in five, with many other state legislatures contemplating following suit. Google in particular has had considerable success getting its cars on the road in California and Nevada.

While entrenched taxi interests continue to oppose Uber, and will no doubt rail against any program that cuts out drivers altogether, driverless cars appear to be moving steadily forward. Though the FAA continues to mull its decision, it is too early to declare delivery drones dead in the water. Uncertain government regulation may put the concept on ice for now, but companies need not depend on flight to deliver their goods. Drones may not turn out to be the small pests buzzing over our heads as previously imagined, at least for now. It is not unreasonable to think though that they may soon manifest themselves in the car sitting next to you in traffic. While the idea is not nearly as spectacular as watching a swarm of drones jet through New York City’s skyline, watching a bag of Chinese delivery drive itself to its destination would still be pretty amazing.

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