Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Those Amazon Delivery Drones? Not So Fast: Federal Aviation Administration Planned Rules Seen as Increasing Costs for Businesses, Precluding Use for Deliveries

Planned federal rules would likely preclude delivery drones being developed by Inc. and Google Inc., and make some other potential drone uses too expensive for small businesses, industry proponents said.

The Federal Aviation Administration is expected to propose rules for commercial drones next month that would mandate operators have pilot licenses and limit drone flights to daytime hours, below 400 feet and within sight of the person at the controls, according to people familiar with the rule-making process.

Those rules would increase the costs and erode the value of operating unmanned aircraft for many businesses, particularly small ones, drone makers and users said. Requiring that users only fly drones within their view would effectively prohibit many commercial applications, including pipeline inspections, large-scale crop monitoring and deliveries, they said. Requiring one person to operate each drone would hurt the economics.

The FAA’s planned rule “is going to be a serious limiter,” said Ryan Calo, a University of Washington law professor who studies robotics policy. “If they were going to have one pilot for each drone, they might as well put someone on a bicycle and send them over to your house.”

Amazon and Google, which want to use drones to deliver small packages, declined to comment.

The FAA has said it wants to take a gradual approach to “integrate unmanned aircraft into the busiest, most complex airspace system in the world” while protecting safety in the air and on the ground. The agency says it aims to propose rules that balance the promise of the technology with the risk; airline pilots increasingly report mid-air drone sightings, including three incidents near John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York last week.

Other federal departments are reviewing the agency’s draft rule, a process that could change some details and delay its release. It will likely take one to two years before the rule is completed, after public comments.

The FAA now allows recreational drone flights but effectively bans commercial use. The planned rules are intended to gradually open U.S. skies to commercial unmanned aircraft; the agency has said it plans to allow more drone operations as technology improves.

In the near term, though, drone backers say the agency’s planned rules would stifle the industry. Companies could still use unmanned aircraft to film movies, create maps and inspect buildings. But drones likely wouldn’t be efficient for scouting for natural resources or inspecting miles of power lines.

In agriculture, for example, it might take a day to survey a farm using drones under the planned FAA rules, compared with 30 minutes in a small airplane, said Patrick Egan, a drone advocate and consultant in Sacramento, Calif. Other rules, such as requiring a pilot’s license, would further increase costs, he said.

Helen Greiner, chief executive of drone maker CyPhy Works Inc., said the planned rules would unduly affect small businesses. Requiring a farmer, claims adjuster or realtor to get a pilot’s license “changes the entire cost structure,” said Ms. Greiner, who cofounded iRobot Corp. in 1990. “Drones can make jobs less costly and more efficient, but the FAA is pushing them to be more costly and less efficient.”

Ms. Greiner and others warn that more permissive regulations in countries such as Canada, France and Germany are pushing U.S. drone makers abroad.

Google tested its delivery drones in Australia, running more than 30 flights in farming country west of Brisbane, Queensland. The company delivered packages at distances of about two-thirds of a mile, well beyond a pilot’s sight.

Amazon is trying to hire flight-safety and testing experts in Cambridge, U.K., for its drone program. The company is testing its drones indoors in Seattle. Amazon asked the FAA in July to let it test its vehicles in a field near its Seattle headquarters, but the agency has not yet responded.

The technology to make drone deliveries safe and reliable may still be years away, meaning rules could be more accommodating by the time the devices are ready for the market.

In December 2013, Amazon Chief Executive Jeff Bezos said his company could start using drones for deliveries within four to five years, depending partly on FAA approvals.

Eileen Shibley, founder of drone maker Monarch Inc., said there are many unanswered questions about delivery drones, including what happens when they fly near power lines or congested areas. “These delivery programs are a great idea, but we are not ready yet, practically and culturally,” she said.

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