Prime Air promo, via Amazon
Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos pitched his drone vision as a simple matter of evolution. He’s almost certainly right: Of all potential commercial applications for drones, point-to-point transportation of goods is among the most glaring. But as with most promising ideas, postman drones have some hurdles to clear before taking to the skies.
In his big reveal yesterday on 60 Minutes, Bezos mapped out his juggernaut’s development from man-with-truck to algorithmic optimization, extrapolating into a future where unmanned aerial vehicles deliver your packages in 30 minutes or less.
Now, Amazon Prime Air is by no means the first drone delivery system to hit the Internet. From Tacocopter to automated pizza delivery, or more saintly applications like medical supply drops in developing nations, UAVs hold particular appeal for routine portage.
What Bezos lacks in novelty—his is a vision of mundanity, where “Prime Air vehicles will be as normal as seeing mail trucks on the road today”—he has a peerless track record of bringing systems to scale (just not the Segway), plus the petty cash to buy the Washington Post on the spot. If there will be any commercial drones flitting around in the near future, they will almost certainly be Prime.
Bezos and friends are setting their alarm clocks to September 30, 2015, when the Federal Aviation Administration is supposed to submit its master plan for fully integrating drones into domestic airspace. But as full as the FAA’s hands are trying to license government drones of all sizes, it’s made few moves toward launching commercial UAVs. Until it hammers out a regulatory framework and approves technology standards, Amazon can make as many stunty announcements and promos as its stockholders can gobble up, but it won’t hasten the day when drones eliminate the need to leave your house for soap.
The FAA’s current position is clear: “there are no means to obtain an authorization for commercial [drone] operations.” The agency has sent out a number of cease and desist letters to companies and individuals suspected of using drones for commercial means, from real estate photographers to filmmakers to journalists. It’s even trying to fine one photographer $10,000 for “recklessly” using a drone to film a promotional video for the University of Virginia:
The offending photographer, Raphael Pirker, is fighting the fine. His lawyers argue that the FAA is splitting hairs between model airplanes and unmanned aerial systems, the former utterly immune from legal restrictions and the latter subject to restrictions, with only fuzzy distinctions between the two.
But split the FAA must. Arbitrary as these sorts of distinctions may seem in gestation, there are valid reasons for the FAA to take its time letting drones out of the box. From the real possibility of drones falling from the sky due to communication issues or inclement weather to more mundane questions of appropriate yielding, the logistics of swarms of vehicles of various sizes moving in three dimensions is boggling and in desperate need of study.
A measured approach also allows civil libertarians to consider how so many flying sensors and cameras might be safeguarded against invasions of privacy from the commercial sector, individual creeps, and overzealous law enforcement alike.
Stunty or not, Jeffrey Bezos recognizes that drones will shape the future of communications, transportation, science, and beyond. Projections put the domestic drone industry at a $80-90 billion game within the decade. Per its public relations team, Amazon has reached out to the FAA to extend expertise and resources in bringing drones to market. There may be some altruism in the offer, but there’s also a lot of bottomline motivation. Just as auto manufacturers shaped the law of the road to their purposes and the revolutionary potential of the car, there are no shortage of commercial interests eager to guide the wondrous drone integration.
The federal government certainly needs all the help it can get. Given the profit motive and privacy stake, this can’t be an opaque process. Whether it’s licensing commercial drones or giving the nod for government deployments, the public needs an active voice, and the information to meaningfully contribute. As the FAA lurches toward 2015, the Motherboard-MuckRock Drone Census will push aggressively for transparency around drone integration in all its manifestations.