Imagine for a moment that you are at home working on a project in your garage, when you realize that you don’t have the right size socket wrench. You get out your phone, and after a few taps, your wrench is on its way. Up to this point in our story, you could do all of these things today. What if, however, the wrench can be delivered to your driveway by a drone in less than 15 minutes from the time you bought it? Is this the future?

According to companies like Amazon, it is. But is it the future that is actually going to happen in the next few years, or is it the future of the jetpack and the flying car, which has seemed to be right around the corner for the last 70 years? There are a lot of proponents of the vision who insist it truly is coming soon, and there are a lot of nay-sayers who say that even expecting it in ten years is unrealistic. Who to believe?

When the nay-sayers include one of the largest UAS manufacturers in the world, perhaps it is time to take notice. According to DJI’s global PR manager Michael Perry, we are not going to be seeing large fleets of drones delivering packages for at least another ten years. While DJI sees continued strong growth in the commercial use of UAS in rural areas or under tightly controlled circumstances such as precision agriculture or closed set filming, long distance autonomous flying is still a long way off.

Technological issues, such as the reliability of GPS signals, collision avoidance, and traffic deconfliction aside, the FAA has barely even begun to lay the regulatory framework that would be required for such operations. The Small UAS NPRM, which is still probably 18 months or more from being final, has no provision for beyond visual line of sight flying or for the certification of beyond visual line of sight aircraft. According to the FAA’s UAS Roadmap, “fully certified UA-based collision avoidance solutions may not be feasible until the long-term,” which is defined as sometime around 2026.

Doing all of the basic research necessary to allow autonomous flight is extremely worthwhile. Once the technology is mature, the benefits to society could be immense. However, the media sometimes needs a small splash of cold water by someone like Mr. Perry to bring us all back to earth and temper our expectations about what can actually be done, and how much hard work it is going to take. And who knows, maybe someday the flying car will make the UAS obsolete.

(Originally posted April 16, 2015)