In light of the FAA’s new rule (or Part 107) for small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (sUAS), the Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) industry has eagerly pushed the U.S. government to initiate testing of drone delivery systems. Although Part 107 suggests the FAA will likely expand the uses of drones, the rule does not allow for such drone applications in the National Airspace System (NAS). Among the various companies expressing interests in using drones to deliver goods, are industry giants Amazon PrimeAir (Amazon) and Google’s parent company, Alphabet.
Amazon future delivery system would deliver packages weighting up to 5 pounds to its customers by landing sUAS on trucks or buses for a portion of the journey. Amazon drone delivery applications show how drones could deliver goods, and use recharging stations and GPS coordinates to reach its destination. Alphabet’s Project Wing would operate drones with external cargo loads beyond visual line of sight. Neither are currently permitted under Part 107, which requires the remote pilot-in-command (RPIC) to maintain visual line of sight and prohibits operations over people. In the long term, the FAA has indicated it is open to expand the use of sUAS for commercial purposes through waiver mechanisms and the announcement of a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) for operations of sUAS over non-participants by the end of this year.
With push from Amazon and Google, industry efforts to open the skies to drone delivery seem to be paying off. On July 26, 2016, Amazon announced its partnership with the UK Civil Aviation Authority to test its drone delivery systems in rural and suburban areas in England using sensors to identify and avoid obstacles and multiple sUAS operated by a single RPIC. Shortly thereafter, Alphabet obtained FAA clearance to test its Project Wing under 400 feet at one of the six FAA testing sites and evaluate cargo-loaded drones, flights beyond visual line of sight, and low altitude management systems for UAS. Both Amazon PrimeAir and Google have a seat on the FAA’s Drone Advisory Committee (DAC). The DAC will help the FAA develop future UAS regulations and policies in line with the UAS industry needs. In addition, the White House announced a $35 million grant to the National Science Foundation to support a five-year research project to develop the use of drones. New York also announced a $5 million investment to encourage commercial drone activities with the creation of an “innovation district” dedicated to UAS.
Companies like Amazon and Google can play an important role in pushing for favorable regulations to operate sUAS for commercial purposes. This wave of testing authorizations in the UK and the U.S., support from the White House to help integrate sUAS in the economy, and UAS industry participation in the DAC will hopefully lay ground for future FAA approvals.