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Supply Chain News: Suddenly Picture Brightens for US Drone Deliveries


FAA Changing Tone Under Pressure from Trump Adminstration Interested in Keeping US Technology Lead


March 12, 2018
SCDigest Editorial Staff

Could real drone parcel delivery really be just a few months away?

Until recently, that hardly seemed possible, as the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) maintained a very strict set of rules even for testing, including requiring line of site for the entire drone journey by an certified "pilot" on the ground, and the requirement that the drone not ever fly over people.

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All told, the Wall Street Journal says, "the impetus for delivery solutions is accelerating, and such flights appear inevitable."

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That led Amazon and others to move testing outside of the US to countries such as the UK, Australia and India, where regulations were more flexible.

But that situation could quickly be changing. It was in December of 2013 when Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos made major waves with the announcement on 60 Minutes – and video released the next day – that Amazon was aggressively pursuing drone delivery technology.

But that initial excitement was soon dissipated after the FAA released its initial rules, even after they were slightly relaxed a couple of years ago, with some additional opportunities for exemptions in some areas.

It appears the status quo has changed. The Wall Street Journal reported over the weekend that stepped-up White House pressure from the Trump administration concerned about losing the lead in drone technology has prompted closer cooperation between the government and companies such as Amazon seeking authorizations for more testing of drone deliveries.

Senior officials at the Transportation Department, the FAA's parent agency, get calls from the White House fairly regularly demanding faster decisions, according to Derek Kan, DOT's undersecretary for policy.

Now, FAA officials are urging companies to submit a variety of proposals, repeatedly using the catchphrase "the FAA is open for business," in a clear change of tone from the previous administration.

Amazon and a number of other companies (Google, GE, etc.) have release parameters for a separate, low-altitude traffic-control network intended to be funded and run by a drone industry players.

"The upshot, according to these officials, is newfound confidence by both sides that domestic package-delivery services finally appear on the verge of taking off," the Wall Street Journal wrote.

While the regulators may loosed the reigns a bit, there are still a number of obstacles. For example, one major issue involves security concerns on the part of local or national law enforcement agencies relative to drone flights.

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Another barrier: local governments concerned about noise, privacy and safety fears from drone traffic. Amazon, in fact, last year filed a patent for a drone that would operate more quietly to address concerns about the loud humming noise drones produce. (See Amazon Files Patent for Urban Drone "Beehive," includes Plans for Redundant Propulsion Systems.)

Some state and local governments are also arguing their inherent powers should supersede Federal regulations of drone traffic.

On the other hand, a senior FAA air-traffic control official Jay Merkle was recently quoted as saying that drone package delivery flights could be a reality, at least in test mode, by this summer.

Amazon, widely considered one the most aggressive and furthest advanced applicants, is said to be pushing for safety approval of detailed drone designs by the FAA, as well as precise operating rules.

Gur Kimchi, vice president of Amazon's Prime Air unit that is leading its drone effort, is telling people 2019 is a more realistic year for real drone flights.

However, Earl Lawrence, who heads FAA's drone-integration office, said at an industry conference last week that drone deliveries may be "a lot closer than many of the skeptics think."

The Wall Street Journal article noted that in some of the other countries that have been more flexible on drone deliveries, that situation has been possible because the permits limit the drone flights to segregated areas. The US FAA, conversely, is looking to integrate them into the nation's airspace – a far more complicated strategy.

But all told, the Wall Street Journal says, "the impetus for delivery solutions is accelerating, and such flights appear inevitable."

"We face tremendous congestion on the roads, but we have virtually unlimited capacity above us," said Brian Wynne, president of the drone ndustry's largest trade association. "Why wouldn't we use that?"

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