Is the Future Now for Drone Delivery Services?

Just a few years ago, the idea of a “drone” line item in your financials seemed far-fetched. All that most of us knew about drones – also known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) – was what we’d seen in military surveillance newsreels.

Then came December 1, 2013. That was when the U.S. news show 60 Minutes aired an interview with Amazon CEO and founder Jeff Bezos in which he revealed his company’s secret initiative – 30-minute package delivery using special drone technology. Bezos said the new approach would change the world, but he was careful to qualify his claim by noting that the logistics still needed to be worked out and that actual widespread commercial drone deliveries were years away.

The trouble was, FAA regulations prohibited drone use for commercial purposes. In early 2012, some Los Angeles real estate companies were warned by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to stop using drones to shoot videos of their for-sale properties. This was one of the first known skirmishes in the quickly evolving battle over how drones can – and can’t – be used by for-profit businesses.

The regulatory community gradually caught up. Beginning in September 2014, the FAA granted thousands of Section 333 exemptions. Then, on June 21, 2016, the FAA and U.S. DOT jointly announced the adoption of Summary of Small Unmanned Aircraft Rules (Part 107), which finalized the first operational rules for routine commercial use of small UAVs. Its effective date is August 29, 2016.

While not technically replacing the exemption process, these new rules (see details below) create sufficient guidelines for effective commercial drone use without the effort, expense and delays experienced by many who pursued a Section 333 exemption.

It is also important to understand that the new drone rules do not apply universally. More specifically, the new rule does not throw open the gates to unfettered package delivery by drone. The rule’s first listed exclusion is for “Transporting Property for Compensation (Air Carrier Operations).” In addition to being unfeasible under some of the new rules – such as the requirement that the UAS always remain in sight of its operator or that it not travel over uninvolved people – the FAA’s explanation of the rule goes to great lengths to stress the need for significantly more advancement in the technology and the practice before Amazon and Google can start dropping drones on your front step.

Drone delivery advocates seem to recognize this. While the signs are encouraging and the new FAA rule moves the process one step closer to reality, there is still work to do.

An analysis of the first 3,136 exemptions granted by the FAA found that only 3 were for aerial delivery, compared with over 2,500 for aerial photography and nearly 2,000 for real estate uses (with a significant amount of redundancy in these categories). Activities related to inspections, construction, filmmaking and advertising also received far more exemptions from the FAA than aerial delivery did, according to the study by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI).

On the other hand, this technology is coming and there’s no stopping it. “Within months you will see the incredible impact of these rules with commercial drones becoming commonplace in a variety of uses,” said Michael Drobac, a lawyer at Akin Gump who represents drone efforts at companies like Amazon and Google.

Quoted in a New York Times article about the adoption of FAA Part 107, Drobac added, “This will show the technology is reliable and then it becomes harder to argue against broader uses — like for delivery.”