In the not-too-distant future, Amazon could use a drone to deliver a package from a country warehouse all the way to … a nearby farm.
And that, the government said on Tuesday, is about it.
The regulations mark the government’s first explicit efforts to define the commercial uses for the horde of small, plastic, buzzing aircraft that are invading America’s skies. The Federal Aviation Administration said commercial drones are OK so long as the drone and its payload weigh less than 55lb, stay within unaided sight of the pilot and operators pass a test every two years. In addition, each drone must have its own pilot.
While consumers have flocked to the miniature aircraft, US businesses say the problem for them is not technology. Amazon and Google, for instance, have shown prototype delivery drones that could eliminate the need for shipping via post or UPS. Executives say the holdup is a web of unclear regulation.
The government said it is comfortable with companies using drones for inspecting crops, search and rescue, aerial photography and other infrastructure inspection. But when it comes to deliveries, the Obama administration said drones are only clear for take off in a very limited set of circumstances.
The combined drone and package still has to weigh less than 55lb. The drones cannot fly over anyone not involved in the transaction and cannot fly out of sight of the pilot. That isn’t exactly what Amazon had in mind with its famous demo video of a drone touching down on a suburban driveway.
The government said on Tuesday that Amazon had taken particular issue with its requirement to have one pilot for each drone. “Amazon asserted that the proposed restriction is based on the flawed premises that small UAS [unmanned aircraft systems] must be operated under constant manual control,” the FAA’s filing said.
The government said Google, meanwhile, argued for the ability to “present a safety case” for instances where they want to be able to fly drones over “non-participants”.
The debate doesn’t appear to be entirely about safety. The Teamsters labor union, whose membership includes truck drivers, has lobbied against letting pilots control fleets of multiple drones, “until there is technological certainty that no workers, or the general public, would be at risk from automated package delivery”, the government said.
The government said it lacks data on the safety of flying drones outside the line-of-sight of the pilot; though it said operators could apply for a waiver on a case-by-case basis.
Commercial drones can only fly during daylight and 30 minutes before sunrise and 30 minutes after sunset. Speeds must be kept under 100 mph and the drones can’t fly above 400ft (122m).
The government acknowledged that it doesn’t have the authority to regulate recreational drone flights the same way, other than to punish amateur pilots who “endanger the safety of the national airspace system”. US hobbyists are also supposed to register their drones, though it’s unclear what percentage actually do.
This article was written by Danny Yadron in San Francisco, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 21st June 2016 21.16 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010