Tomorrow, July 17, 2015, the first testing of small unmanned aircraft system (“sUAS”) package deliveries is expected to start in Wise County, West Virginia, through a collaborative group of Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) test site operators which include Virginia Tech, NASA, and Flirtey (an Australian-based sUAS delivery company). The group will deliver twenty-four packages of prescription medication, weighing up to ten pounds each, to a free medical health clinic. The authorization demonstrates the FAA’s interest in new UAS applications and UAS safety data for future rulemakings.

The testing is designed to determine the sUAS’ ability to reach patients in rural areas who do not have access to basic health services. NASA will fly the prescription medications from distant pharmacies to the local airport and the Flirtey hexacopter sUAS will deliver the packages to the clinic in Wise County. The use of the sUAS is expected to cut the delivery time—normally one-hour—to fifteen minutes. The success of this testing will be beneficial for commercial operators who want the FAA to develop rules for package delivery beyond visual line-of-sight (“VLOS”) operations.

The FAA has also given Section 333 exemptions to conduct research and development of the use of sUAS for its Amazon Prime Air delivery system that the company states “will get packages to customers in 30 minutes or less using aerial vehicles.” But, the company cannot deliver packages under the exemptions or fly beyond VLOS.

Companies should not expect the delivery testing in Wise County to open the door to package delivery in the U.S. in the near future. The FAA’s Notice of Proposed Rulemaking for commercial sUAS operations—released in February 2015 and years in the making—would prohibit package delivery, flights beyond VLOS, and flights over persons. According to the testimony of FAA Deputy Administrator, Michael Whitaker, the agency anticipates that it will issue the final rule in the summer of 2016.

With the unlikely chance that the FAA will change the proposed sUAS rules to permit package delivery, the FAA has recognized that such deliveries may be on the horizon under appropriate authorizations. The former manager of the FAA office tasked to integrate UAS in the national airspace, was recently quoted in the Washington Post as stating that package delivery will “be fairly routine, be it in rural areas. It’s going to be real tough to do it in a built-up major metropolitan area outside of Washington, D.C., because how do you deal with the helicopters that are flying sort of randomly. . . . When they figure that out I think it’ll happen. There’s no other reason, no other barrier to doing that.”

The testing will add to the growing body of sUAS data for the FAA’s consideration in future rulemakings that could expand commercial operations. Flirtey has already been making UAS deliveries of student textbooks in Australia, a country which has authorized package delivery with UAS since 2014. Other countries, such as Singapore, are also developing UAS rules to permit commercial package delivery operations.

[A special thanks to Meghan Hammond for her contributions to this blog post.]