When 60 Minutes broke the well-timed Cyber Monday story that Amazon intended to offer product deliveries with a 30-minute turnaround time using automated flying drones, people wondered, can this be true? Could drones be used to make personal deliveries to our homes? In short, yes, it can, and will be done – and the FAA is already scrambling to define the playing field for commercial drone-based deliveries.
Drone-based delivery HowTo
Product deliveries by automated flying drones is ideal for many reasons. Automated drones can easily drop deliveries off at homes and businesses using little to no additional manpower and using GPS-controlled UAVs would provide accurate mapping and pinpoint deliveries with extremely short turnaround times. To make such deliveries, packages would be attached to drones at the nearest distribution facility and programmed with the destination endpoint. The drones would then travel through designated corridors and land at their destination (not quite as safe) or “drop” products (not quite as accurate) in front of homes or businesses. The problem with drone delivery, and the reason the method is still a ways in the future, is not the logistics of the delivery process but rather, the regulation of the industry – regulation that is required to ensure citizens are not endangered by drone-based product deliveries.
FAA guidelines in the making
Much of what is required, regulation-wise, for drone-based delivery has already been proposed in sections 331 through 336 of H.R. 658 (FAA Reauthorization and Reform Act of 2012) which addresses “unmanned aircraft systems”. Safety considerations include both protection of persons on the ground and the mechanisms needed to ensure drones in the air do not collide with each other or other aircraft (a “sense and avoid” capability will certainly be required). To accomplish the integration of unmanned aircraft systems into the national airspace system, a phased-in approach will be undertaken. The target date for this integration? Sometime between 2015 and 2020 – a five-year roadmap should be coming down the pipe within the next year.
In order to phase drone-based delivery systems into the national airspace, the FAA will first require a designation of the airspace that the drones are allowed to operate in and certifications standards that unmanned delivery-drones (UAV’s) must adhere to in order to be considered “safe”.
FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said at a press conference”
“We must ensure that safety and efficiency of the entire airspace including all aircraft all people and property both manned and unmanned in the air and on the ground. We have operational goals as well as safety issues that we need to address before the implementation of unmanned aircraft systems.”
Drone-delivery safety requirements
The airspace, at least initially, will likely allow for long-distance travel only through designated corridors around the country. These corridors will specify geographic boundaries as well as the altitudes the drones are required to operate in. Of course, when the destination point is reached, the drone may exit the designated corridor at ingress and egress routes, but only after appropriate communications, notifications, and safety procedures are followed.
The certification standards will likely specify not only construction requirements such as size and weight limits but additional required safety features such as ability to take over a drone for manual flying maneuvers, avoidance detection systems, and safety systems that would be required to kick in if the drone hardware fails (think “engine failure” and “parachutes”).
Pie in the sky?
As drone technology matures, safety studies based on available data will be conducted first before moving forward. And of course, all of this will be phased in slowly, first in less-populated areas before allowing free-flying drones to whizz around the skies all across the country. However, delivery by drone is not a pie-in-the-sky idea. Thus far, drone usage has been permitted by the FAA on a case-by-case basis and unmanned aircraft authorized for commercial use has already completed a mission over the Arctic Ocean. Furthermore, a Silicon Valley startup, Matternet, has already conducted a drone network trial in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, where they were able to fly for six miles carrying a 3lb payload.
As you can see, unmanned drone delivery systems are still a ways off but don’t nix your vision of personal urban drone deliveries just yet. It’ll come. It’s just going to take some time to get here.
You can read the FAAs Integration of Civil Unmanned Aircraft Systems in the National Airspace roadmap here.