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FAA’s Caution Not the Only Obstacle for Drone Delivery

Commercial drones faced serious technological obstacles even before federal regulators proposed tight restrictions this week.
February 18, 2015

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s proposed new rules on the commercial use of drones effectively scuttled projects such as Amazon’s and Google’s efforts to deliver books and other items directly to shoppers’ doors by air—at least in the United States. But it’s not clear that delivering goods to consumers via drone was even realistic in the first place.

The FAA’s proposed regulations mandate that a drone operator keep in “unaided” visual contact with the aircraft at all times. Michael Pietrucha, an expert on unmanned aircraft and former Air Force F-15E weapons systems officer, praised the rule because even the most sophisticated unmanned aircraft operated by the Air Force—let alone small commercial drones—have no ability to detect and avoid other aircraft that are flying around them. (This feature in the Atlantic last year explained how Google was trying to deal with that problem.)

“The dream of package deliveries by drone is ahead of its time,” adds Phil Finnegan, an analyst with the Virginia-based Teal Group aerospace consultancy. “It faces not just regulatory problems but also technological issues until cheap, reliable sense-and-avoid systems and very autonomous systems are developed.”

Moreover, Pietrucha says, drone deliveries to most places would require big improvements in the range of the little aircraft. Amazon has said it envisions using drones to deliver things up to five pounds within a 10-mile range. However, a consumer-grade drone that can carry two pounds of payload can fly for only about 12 minutes before it runs out of battery power, Pietrucha says. Assuming a top speed of 40 mph and giving enough time for takeoff, delivery, and returning to base, the delivery range of such a drone, he says, would be about three miles. “The dream of package deliveries by drones was nothing but a publicity stunt,” he says. “The thing that killed the drone delivery fantasy is power, not a [line-of-sight] rule.”

Google and Amazon and other drone-delivery companies such as Matternet (see “Separating Hype from Reality on Amazon’s Drones”) still can try to prove the doubters wrong. They and anyone else can push for changes in the drone rules during the FAA’s public comment period, which could take more than a year. And in the meantime, they can keep testing drones in other countries with fewer restrictions, such as Australia.

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