Is Airspace the New Panama Canal?

Sep 03, 2015 • Business, Development
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A Future of Flying Robots

Despite widespread military use, drone aircraft are still an emerging technology. But the rapid advancement of drone technology is turning the public airspace into the new Panama Canal.

Drones represent a rapidly growing industry that thinks will revolutionize the way people live today. Many hobbyists have gone out and purchased drones for fun in the backyard. Governments have even used drones for warfare. And police forces like the one in Camden, N.J. are currently using drones for surveillance. However, the most ambitious drone application for consumers is likely going to be the shipping industry. Companies like Amazon and DHL are paving the way for automated, GPS-based shipping that can use a drone to send a package to a consumer’s home in less than an hour. While a future that includes fleets of flying robots sounds exciting, there are also some roadblocks that will need to be overcome in order for this industry to become a reality.

Amazon’s Big Idea

Amazon proposed an idea in October, 2014 called Prime Air that would ship packages from one of their many  Gargantuan warehouses directly to consumers in major cities. The potential advantage would be rapid shipping and lower costs as the technology improves. Consumers could even pay a premium and receive certain items within 30 minutes. The drones would be capable of traveling up to 50 miles per hour with a 55 pound payload. When Amazon first unveiled this idea in December 2013, it was initially received with heavy doses of both awe, and criticism. At the time Amazon claimed the only reason it was unable to begin shipping immediately was because of prevailing regulations.

DHL Goes a Step Further

When Amazon made its announcement, drone technology was no surprise for the shipping industry. The German-based shipping firm DHL was already experimenting with similar projects. The company announced its drone shipping systems, called the Parcelcopter, just a few days after Amazon. While the company received little publicity, it succeeded in launching a pilot program in Germany during the fall of 2014. The service now operates on the tiny German island of Juist, where many resources were formerly out of reach for the 2000 consumers in the area.

Government Regulations

The federal government in the United States has sweeping control over both radio signals and flying aircraft in the skies. While most people think of FAA regulations as limited to commercial aircraft, the reality is that drones fall under the same regulations. Unmanned aircraft traveling a significant distance must get clearance from the FAA before takeoff is permitted. Unfortunately, the rules that currently exist make it impractical for Amazon to get clearances to send simple packages to consumers on a regular basis. Other countries have similar laws, so it is hard to tell whether the legal environment of the United States is truly to blame for the lack of drone shipping.

Reasons for Regulation

In democratic societies, governments must provide legislation that is popular among voters. Unfortunately, this can sometimes lead to legislation that is not aligned with reality, since voters are not experts on all issues. Many consumers have been told to be afraid of drones because they can potentially fall out of the sky or collide with commercial aircraft. Shipping drones fly at low altitudes, which makes it possible for them to hit buildings or other objects on the ground. Drones could also collide with planes near airports.

The reality is that the advanced drone navigation systems used by DHL and Amazon will incorporate geospatial data to avoid collisions with man-made objects. This data accounts for three-dimensional global scans that include current information about every static object in the world. Drones will also fly far below the altitude of commercial aircraft and well above the homes of consumers. Most of the fears are undue, but the FDA certainly has good reasons to make Amazon prove due diligence with its drone fleet.

FAA Modernization and Reform Act

Congress passed a law called the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, which required the FAA to develop new rules governing unmanned aircraft by September 2015. The FAA is hoping to finalize its legislation before this deadline. The agency has claimed in the past that it will try to finish its regulations by the spring of 2015. When these rules are released, Amazon will know how it can operate its drones in the United States. The rules regarding drones are likely to balance the public interest of safety with the economic benefits that could potentially be realized through drone shipping. FAA legislation is also likely to focus on other industries that can potentially see advantages through drones, such as manufacturing, construction, and marketing.

FAA Grants Amazon Permission to Test Drone Deliveries

As of March 20, 2015, the FAA has issued Amazon and Experimental Airworthiness Certificate to at least allow the company begin training drone pilots, and flight testing drone prototypes in real-world environments and conditions. According to a statement published on the FAA website:

“Under the provisions of the certificate, all flight operations must be conducted at 400 feet or below during daylight hours in visual meteorological conditions. The UAS must always remain within visual line-of-sight of the pilot and observer. The pilot actually flying the aircraft must have at least a private pilot’s certificate and current medical certification.

The certificate also requires Amazon to provide monthly data to the FAA. The company must report the number of flights conducted, pilot duty time per flight, unusual hardware or software malfunctions, any deviations from air traffic controllers’ instructions, and any unintended loss of communication links. The FAA includes these reporting requirements in all UAS experimental airworthiness certificates.”

Amazon believes drones are safer, faster, cheaper, and more reliable than traditional shipping methods that have been used for a century or more. Although there are regulatory hurdles still in place, in the long-run companies will find solutions and consumers will come to understand drones better. Once the public has warmed up to the idea, drones are likely to be the primary method of shipping within the next decade.

Alex Espenson

Alex Espenson is a technology writer with a passion for home automation, tech security, and wearable smart devices.

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