Unless the new laws signed by the Federal Aviation Administration are repealed or companies find a clever way around them, you will never have a brand new laptop delivered to your door by an unmanned drone on the same day that you order it, at least not in the United States. Uncomfortable with the concept of an autonomous drone and wary of the affect drones have on local airspace, the FAA laid out a list of guidelines for unmanned commercial drones for delivery which essentially defeats the purpose of a delivery drone. For starters, the biggest hurdle here is that drones must be manually controlled at all times, and their operator must be able to see them without aid. Not only that, but their operators must be certified in the operation of the drones according to official government standards, and each drone must have its own pilot; no one person can control a fleet of drones. Finally, the drones cannot go above 400 feet, the drone and its payload cannot weigh more than 55 pounds, and the drone cannot fly over anybody except its pilot and the person who plans to receive the drone’s payload. In one fell regulatory swoop, the FAA all but grounded the dream of autonomous drones bringing fresh groceries daily from Amazon, among other dreams.
Let’s take a moment to go over in detail, exactly what each bit of that ruling means and how this reality stacks up to Amazon and Google’s plans. First off, the requirement that certified pilots must be able to see their drone, unaided, at all times; this one is the big bummer that really gives all of the other regulations their bite. This piece of the law means that you can’t have a person in a control room controlling the drone from afar, let alone multiple drones. Thus, unless somebody is going to volunteer to walk from a shipping joint to your home, the drone cannot legally reach you. At that point, though, why bother with a drone anyway?
That said, on to the second point; operators must be certified. This means that the available talent pool to operate drones remotely, even if that were allowed, would suddenly get very, very shallow; how many people would be willing to go out and take a certification test to fly a drone? The price advantage of drone delivery over land delivery would also become null and void here, since studying and certifying requires time and money, which drone operators would want a decent return on.
The third point is that an operator can only control one drone, and that presents serious issues with supply and demand. At the point we’re legally at, you’ll need a paid and certified operator following each drone around on foot. Since the current delivery drones can only carry one package and there’s a limit on payload weight, multiple drops with one drone are essentially out; one payload, one drone, one trip. If you live 5 miles from the distribution center and 10 miles from the next delivery, that’s a grand total of 15 miles that the drone has to fly and its operator has to walk.
Even if the above were all repealed, the remaining bits and bobs would make things incredibly difficult, if not outright impossible. The weight limits would severely limit the types of packages that could be delivered, since a drone large enough to accept a package would logically have to be fairly heavy. The height limits would make navigation nearly impossible in urban areas with lots of tall buildings, and would force the drone to contend with the likes of trees, birds and hobbyist drones on its way to the delivery. Finally, there’s the fact that the drones cannot fly over anybody who isn’t involved in the transaction or transfer of goods at hand. Even in suburban areas, there tends to be a good number of people, both in cars and on foot, scattered about, and the drones can go over none of them to reach their destination. This means that they have to have special sensors to figure out who their target is and is not, and would have to dodge and weave around people in some areas, wasting a lot of time and energy. This would eat away at delivery time and cost, two of the more important reasons that drone delivery was dreamed up in the first place. While the case could end up in appeals court, the fate of the technology looks pretty grim, for the time being, and any possible drone delivery system under this framework would be quite removed from the original visions of Google and Amazon.