On commercial drones: in and out of out control

As we get ready to start into another semester, my head is again filled with thoughts of drones. Spring – when the drones return to campus, like the swallows to Capistrano, and I get all excited about drones.

Weighing heavy on my mind is where we stand with our not-so-new administration, and policy for the commercial use of drones in support of deliveries especially. Something is going to have to give, to change, if this is going to become “a thing” for US businesses, especially big businesses like Amazon.

Drone overlords

Under the Obama administration, the US went from no rules and no policy, to OH MY GOD ALL THE RULES and ALL THE POLICIES, before settling back to… something. The current, interim guidelines and requirements from the FAA have the breakpoint for drones at 55 lbs, operations at line of sight, flights only during the daytime, and flights below 400 feet. Oh – and the FAA requires not flying near other aircraft… or over people.

As an initial set of requirements, this has been OK – the FAA established the means for obtaining waivers. Some firms, like photographers, quickly followed the procedures to secure a license and have been obtaining waivers to deviate from these requirements. But to build business plans around them? The FAA – the administration – was not ready for this.

Significant hurdles remain. I’ll use Amazon as an example, but I could just as easily use the local florist as an example, too.

  • There exist two options for drone operations – piloted and unpiloted. Having to use pilots gets expensive. This involves dedicated, certified pilots for every single mission. At every location from which they are delivering packages, Amazon would have to have dedicated… pilots; that’s far more expensive and time consuming than pre-programming in routes that are executed with the pressing of a few buttons and the help of a GPS receiver. Piloted missions will also have additional, specialized requirements of the drone, in order for the pilot to be in constant contact with and control of it, every moment of it during every flight. Is that via FM or some other radio frequency, with a shorter range? Is that done via the cell phone network, over some sort of 4G / LTE type connection – subject to as good of coverage as the rest of us are subjected (ugh!)? Or will it require something more expensive? Will it require multiple forms, to ensure redundant communications? There are a lot of motivating factors for businesses – especially ones like Amazon – to want to leave pilots out of this.
  • For pilotless, who and how will such flights be monitored and deconflicted? Air traffic management is suddenly going to be a thing. Who establishes… air corridors? Air routes? Air roads? What are we even going to call this, in the air above us, where we expect these pre-programmed drones to be moving about, like something out of (the original) Blade Runner?
  • And what of the 55 lbs limitation?
  • Will there be a controlling agency, like the FAA, or at the state or local level, that determines the kinds of drones that are permitted? Quad copters, but not tilt rotor ones? Helicopter-based platforms, but not fixed-wing airplane-based models? Who decides zoning for land-to-deliver, versus air-drops? And, presumably, who establishes the means for appealing to change this, too, after someone tells me I can’t have things air-dropped into my backyard? And what’s wrong with rockets, huh? Can’t we put GPS controls on those, for delivery?
  • Lastly, this is all fine and dandy, but how do we reconcile moving drones more into the business setting, with our DIY mentality? I can go to us.banggood.com and order all of the pieces and parts I need to make any of a number of different styles of drones I want, all with parts shipped to me straight from the China. No certificate of inspection, no registration – just the internet and some bitcoins. Developing policy, developing plans sits at odds with the origins of much of the roots of drones and the technology behind it, dating back to pre-WWII and the remote control planes that inspired the first drones used by the military. For every one piece of established policy for business drone use, there will be two idiots flying drones that will get in the way – I promise you.

Doing more to add codification on drone usage is great, and much needed. It’s time to think forward, deliberately, with ways in which to open our skies to better incorporate low-flying drones in support of not just hobbyists but also commercial uses. Hurry, Amazon – delivery my Haribo by drone. I only hope these changes are done that way – forward thinking, and deliberately.



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