Package-Delivery Drones Likely Years Away From Federal Approval
Amazon.com Inc. and others have been touting plans to use drones to deliver packages to consumers, but safety experts and federal documents indicate widespread flights aren’t likely before the next decade.
U.S. aviation authorities only recently kicked off the formal process of defining the types of collision-avoidance systems considered essential for such operations to receive broad regulatory authorization. Drafting the technical standards is projected to take three or four years, envisioning a suite of ground-based and airborne sensors that haven’t yet been developed.
Even strong proponents of unmanned aerial vehicles predict that delivering packages to individual customers probably won’t gain significant momentum until at least roughly 2020.
“It’s not outside the realm of possibility that by the end of the decade, we could see more routine uses” of package-delivery drones, according to Paul McDuffee, co-chairman of the federal standards-setting panel and a high-ranking official with Boeing Co.’s drone-making unit, Insitu Inc.
So far, the Federal Aviation Administration has issued rules for routine commercial usesof small drones flying no higher than 400 feet, but almost always within sight of operators. The U.S. agency’s next regulatory priorities are allowing such unmanned aerial vehicles to fly over people in suburban and perhaps certain urban areas; and giving the green light for railroads, pipelines and other prospective users to fly inspection drones many miles away from operators.
Meanwhile, Amazon.com, Google parent Alphabet Inc., United Parcel Service Inc. and other companies are prodding regulators—and some are lobbying extensively on Capitol Hill—to speed up regulatory action opening up the skies for delivery drones. Their arguments focus partly on the prospects of deploying proprietary technology, and partly on the concept of following set routes or potentially segregating drones in airspace that could be off-limits for most manned aircraft. Some experts see potentially faster approvals by piggybacking on existing rules.
Breakthroughs for package-delivery proponents don’t appear imminent. On balance, FAA leaders seem intent on waiting for various collision-avoidance technologies to mature. FAA officials also appear to be taking their time to ensure that rules are both conservative and comprehensive.
In a statement Wednesday, an FAA spokeswoman reiterated agency plans to propose mandatory rules this year and next aimed at integrating other categories of small drones, also weighing less than 55 pounds, into the national airspace.
Delivery drones are “part of our longer-term integration rule-making strategy,” according to the FAA, which didn’t elaborate. Even after industrywide consensus standards are in place, historically it takes one to two years to process public comments and finalize agency regulations.
In a speech last week, FAA chief Michael Huerta stressed the need to be more nimble. “Unmanned aircraft have gone from being a niche interest to an actual segment of aviation that’s growing at an unprecedented pace,” he said in remarks prepared for the Aero Club of Washington.
“I see the inflection point around 2020” for large-scale package-delivery opportunities, said Andreas Raptopoulos, chief executive of Matternet Inc., a drone-delivery startup that already has transported medicine and medical-diagnostic products in Papua New Guinea, Malawi and other places.
Last week in Washington, RTCA Inc., the FAA’s outside technical advisory organization, agreed to start defining technical standards for certain ground-based radars and airborne collision-avoidance sensors, along with advanced communication links, that are bound to provide impetus for expanded drone flights. RTCA documents project the majority of the work ending sometime in 2020.
According to an RTCA scheduling document, a “white paper” spelling out the assumptions and approaches for next-generation “detect and avoid” sensor technologies won’t be finished until next summer; and wide-ranging standards will take at least three more years to complete. Reflecting the pressure to make progress, Richard Heinrich of Rockwell Collins Inc., the other co-chair of the standard-setting panel, told fellow RTCA officials: “We need to get ready for an operational system.”
The anticipated standards are supposed to apply to the next round of agency rule-making: larger drones possibly flying thousands of feet high. According to members of the RTCA panel and other industry experts, much of the same technology and standards likely will also apply to flights below 400 feet, where package-delivery drones typically are intended to cruise.
FAA officials hope to finish the higher-altitude standards and then leverage lessons learned into safety and operational guidelines for lower-altitude package deliveries, according Jim Williams, who previously headed the FAA’s drone office and now works for the international law firm Dentons.
Agency officials “could conceivably have package-delivery rules” drafted “in advance of that point,” he said in an interview this week. “But it’s unlikely.”
In a recent blog post, Google predicted that “in the next decade,” unmanned aircraft “will be able to serve many important purposes.”
Amazon declined to comment. But in the past, the company has said it seeks to eventually deliver packages “up to five pounds in 30 minutes or less using small drones” flying under 400 feet. The company also said the drones “will be built with multiple redundancies, as well as sophisticated ‘sense and avoid’ technology.” Putting all that “into service will take some time,” according to the company’s website.
Faced with FAA reluctance to move more quickly, some of the drone industry’s newest and biggest entrants are expressing frustration. Al Secen, RTCA’s vice president for aviation technology and standards, sees some would-be operators demanding a simple“checklist” of what they need to submit to the FAA to quickly start unfettered operations.
The makeup of a blue-ribbon FAA drone advisory committee aims to balance representatives of traditional aerospace companies with such impatient newcomers, Mr. Secen told an RTCA policy meeting last Thursday. He described the latter as the Silicon Valley contingent that typically complains: “Let’s get moving, we’re going too slow.”