4 Problems the FAA Is Thinking About Before Allowing Autonomous Drone Delivery
February 27, 2019
February 27, 2019
For years, retailers and logistics companies have been sparring with the US government over autonomous air delivery, or drone delivery. More recently Uber expanded its autonomous aspirations with an executive position at UberExpress, their drone delivery operation. With so much effort and investment into unmanned and autonomous flight why does it feel like drone delivery is still no closer in 2019 than it was when Amazon first landed a successful unmanned delivery in 2016?
The root of this problem stems from existing regulations put into effect in August 2016 that limits the extent to which commercial drone activity could expand. According to the FAA’s Part 107 Drone Regulations:
- The drone must be within visual line of sight of the pilot in command.
- At any point, the pilot in command must be able to take over operation of the vehicle.
- The pilot in command can only operate one drone at a time unless a waiver is first issued.
- The drone cannot be operated from a moving vehicle or over non-participating people or vehicles.
- The drone cannot operate in restricted airspace.
That’s a lot of ground to cover before burritos can be delivered to your backyard. We’ll cover some of the steps the FAA is taking to overcome these limitations later in the article.
The FAA classifies airspace differently depending on its proximity and activity level of nearby airports. These classifications range from A-G. In effect, only Class G airspace (uncontrolled airspace) can be operated in without first obtaining an authorization from the FAA. Historically, the authorization process can take days to weeks to approve (or deny). This significantly hampers Amazon’s ability to provide 30-minute air services.
Airspace closer to airports are divided up into gridded sections with each grid maintaining a maximum Above Ground Level (AGL) rating. Any commercial operation flying across these drones would need to be authorized at varying elevations across the pattern the UAV is intended to fly. The elevations can range from 100’ to 400’ AGL or perhaps even 0’ (not authorized to fly without special consideration). These limitations can make planning operations difficult, especially in time sensitive scenarios.
With drone hardware and technology rapidly evolving, the increasing popularity of drones among both commercial entities and recreationalists have created apprehension among many concerned about personal privacy. When the FAA released Part 107, it explicitly stated that “privacy is beyond the purview of its mission of safety and efficiency”. As of now, only codes of conduct give any direction on how drone operators should behave in regard to maintaining reasonable personal privacy.
The FAA has signaled that it will not take any position of privacy related to drone use. This does leave the door open to state and local legislatures to enact laws and regulations that will not be superseded by the FAA. However, the lack of guidance may act as a double-edged sword as many communities continue to look to the FAA for a pattern on how best to maintain reasonable drone related laws.
As for public safety, the FAA takes drone activity very seriously. Drones can completely ground busy airports (New York Times: Drones at Newark Airport). Not to mention drones have recently been used as a delivery vehicle to carry 4 pounds of plastic explosives during an assassination attempt on the Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. This is Dr. Evil’s version of drone delivery!
These incidents aside, there is still an overarching general concern about how drones en masse will behave if left to their own devices. Will package laden drones fall into busy ground transportation arterials or crash into each other? These are the questions the FAA need assurances on before they begin lifting restrictions. However, the FAA has begun to signal its willingness to be progressive on allowing innovation in these areas.
FAA Integration Program
The FAA has recently launched a UAS Integration Pilot Program that allowed select companies to collaborate with the FAA and local governments to prove various applications of drone related activity with fewer restriction. This in addition to a new onboarding process, known as LAANC, which allows private entities to automated the airspace authorization process for commercial activity.
The FAA hopes these programs will help launch drone applications including commerce, photography, emergency services, rescue, agricultural, and more!
Acting FAA Administrator Dan Elwell addressed criticism of the governments slow response to drone innovation: “There’s a perception out there that government is where good ideas go to die. Too many bureaucrats. Nothing gets done. And that makes people not want to work with us. The pace of change is too fast. The scope of work is too big. The stakes are too high. We can’t afford to be alienating the pioneers… the trailblazers… the groundbreakers. They’re the foundation of our industry and we need them at our table,” he said.
“At the very time when American innovators are leading the charge by doing things in a new way, government has to keep up. The FAA has to keep up. If there’s a way for us to improve a process, we’ve got to lead the way. That’s what makes us a world leader in aviation, in safety, in efficiency.