Pie in the Sky

12.02.13

Are Amazon’s Drone Plans Just a Fantasy?

Jeff Bezos says an unmanned aircraft could be dropping books at your door in five years. But he glossed over the huge legal, technological, and ethical hurdles in his way.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’s announcement that his company is exploring the option of delivery drones was an early Christmas present for members of the unmanned aircraft systems community—or UAS as they’re called among advocates.

“It’s really valuable to [us] that such a big player as Amazon is entering this arena,” said Matthew Schroyer, founder of the Professional Society of Drone Journalists, an organization dedicated to helping develop UAS systems for reporters. “A company that big could have a lot of pull. They may be able to help regulations open up for other people, making UAS more feasible for everyone.”

But for Schroyer, and anyone else versed in the current regulatory environment surrounding drones, Amazon’s forecast of using “octocopters” to deliver its products within five years is wildly optimistic—and bordering on absurd. On top of safety concerns and technological inefficiencies, there are legal issues concerning flying autonomous unmanned commercial aircraft that are not even mentioned in the new FAA regulations (PDF) to take effect in 2015.

Long story short: hold your horses, Amazon.

“Under current regulations it’s near impossible,” Schroyer says of Amazon’s plan, which was announced with fanfare on 60 Minutes on Sunday. “The standard way researchers might use something like that is by applying for a certificate of authorization, but…that’s only available to government entities.”

Per Bezos’s description, the Amazon drones would flying below 400 feet and weigh less than 55 pounds, so they would fall outside the scope of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012. Those regulations, Schroyer explains, will apply to larger unmanned aircraft that will share the national airspace (which begins above 400 feet) with Boeing 747s and more. Instead, the drones Bezos is testing would fall under the “small civil unmanned aircraft” classification, an area of the law that remains murky.

In a statement released Monday afternoon, the Federal Aviation Association said it is "committed to the safe, efficient, and timely integration of unmanned aircraft systems" into the airspace. Public use of piloted UAS operations are approved on a "case-by-case basis," it reads. Marie Osako, a spokeswoman for Amazon, said: "We're excited about Amazon Prime Air, a future delivery system that has the goal of delivering customer package in 30 minutes or less." When asked about the timing of the project's launch, Osako referred to the company’s online Q&A section, which states: "We hope the FAA's rules will be in place as early as sometime in 2015. We will be ready at that time."

On the tech side, the biggest issue is safety. While the Amazon drones would likely spend the duration of their flight at an altitude high enough to protect humans from their blades, Bezos’s video on 60 Minutes shows the aircraft eventually landing on a customer’s doorstep—a potentially massive liability that could propel Amazon into a legal warzone. (The company counts 225 million customers.) “How are they going to land? These things have spinning blades that could literally slice your fingers off,” says Schroyer.

Beyond safety, navigating through the legal minefield of regulations could take as long as a decade. New guidelines for the integration of civil unmanned aircraft systems are set to be released by early 2014, a roadmap for which is available on the FAA’s website. The problems Amazon faces, even after these new regulations, are many.

If an Amazon drone flies over your summer BBQ, can you call the cops?

The legislation does include a section allowing drones to physically drop a package—but Schroyer predicts this will still be the most difficult part of Amazon’s journey. In June of this year, researchers at UC Davis attempted to drop pesticides from a UAS in order to test crop-dusting with a Yamaha RMax remote-controlled helicopter (a method that’s been highly successful in Japan). The FAA ultimately allowed the researchers to drop only water—and that permission was granted only after the UC Davis employees had published an entire research paper on the impact and force the water would have if it were to drop from the aircraft.

Further, Page 13 of the roadmap states clearly that all UAS (save for those with “limited operational range,” which would not include Amazon’s fleet) will require a “design and airworthiness certification” in order to fly. This certification may take up to 60 days—making that overnight Amazon Prime delivery look suddenly unlikely. The roadmap also mandates that the UAS “has a flight crew appropriate to fulfill the operators’ responsibilities, and includes a pilot-in-command”; Amazon drones won’t have a crew, or pilot. Which leads to the final problem on the following page: “Autonomous operations are not permitted.”

There is also privacy to consider. While 400 feet is technically below the national airspace, it’s not necessarily free space. Federal regulations mandate that individuals have access to enough of the sky above them to exercise full enjoyment of their land. If an Amazon drone flies over your summer BBQ, can you call the cops?

While Schroyer is thankful to have Amazon as a new player in the UAS game, he predicts it could be up to 10 years before a perfectly wrapped yellow package arrives—sans human—on your doorstep. With the legislation already laid out for the next few years, it seems unlikely that a 60-day application process will beat out the three-day trip it would take a truck to deliver your new shoes.

“It’s a sticky situation,” says Schroyer. “This is a whole different beast.”

Editor's note: This article has been updated to include comments from the FAA and Amazon.