Amazon Delivery Drones Could Hike Flight Risks in Crowded Urban Skies

By Wayne Rash  |  Posted 2013-12-02 Print this article Print

Once the work at the test ranges has been completed, the FAA will submit regulations to Congress for approval. How long Congressional approval will take is anybody's guess.

Clearly, Amazon's suggestion of 2015 as a start date for its drone delivery system is at best wildly optimistic. And that assumes that the FAA approves the use of drones in populated areas for package delivery. That's unlikely in the short term.

The most pressing need, and the one that the FAA is expected to address first, is the use of unmanned systems in law enforcement and public safety. The first places where drones will likely be allowed are in rural areas far from major airports. And therein rests a significant problem.

Meanwhile, any use of drones has to be approved by the FAA on a case-by-case basis. "The FAA is committed to safe, efficient and timely integration of unmanned aircraft systems into our airspace," an FAA spokesperson told eWEEK in an email.

The FAA approves UAS operations by public entities on a case-by-case basis. So far, only a single commercial UAS operator has been approved to operate, and it is in the Arctic. UAS operators must abide by local, state and federal privacy laws. Over the next several years the FAA will establish regulations and standards for the safe integration of remote piloted UAS to meet increased demand. Autonomous UAS operation is not currently allowed in the United States.

The problem is that for drone delivery to be economically feasible, it needs to take place in populated areas near Amazon's warehouses. Those locations are mostly near major airports. Operating drones near major airports is the sort of thing that keeps air traffic controllers awake at night.

Meanwhile, those drones you see that the police and news media use to search for bad guys operate as hobby devices. The operator has to be in visual contact with the drone, and it has to stay close to the ground to be used legally. Even then they can't be used in the vicinity of an airport.

So far it appears that any use by Amazon of drones to deliver packages is pure fantasy, at least in the near future. While it's theoretically possible to perform such a delivery, the regulatory and safety issues are significant. Perhaps more important, it seems unlikely that the FAA will approve anything like Amazon's plan in the near future considering that the primary uses so far are more related to law enforcement and public safety.

So what's the rationale for the Amazon drone announcement? Think about it—the announcement came on Cyber Monday—the one day when the company wants us to be thinking about—and talking about—Amazon above all else.


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