Still Waiting for Drone Deliveries

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When jurisdictions across the United States responded to the COVID-19 epidemic with broad lockdown orders in March and April, home delivery services lacked the manpower to keep up with the explosion in demand. Stores and companies such as Instacart went on hiring sprees; in some areas, it was very hard, if not impossible, to get goods delivered.

You know what might have made things a bit easier? Drones. It has taken years for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to allow the use of unmanned aerial devices for commercial delivery. Over the course of a decade, we’ve gone from a complete ban to slow, heavily regulated, and restricted initial testing.

At the end of August, the FAA finally gave Amazon approval for its Prime Air drone delivery fleet. It did that by classifying Amazon as an “air carrier” and making it subject to some relatively recent regulations intended to facilitate drone deliveries.

The FAA’s rules initially required that private drones remain in sight of the operator at all times. That simply won’t work for delivery services. So in 2019, the agency introduced a special certification process that would allow approved pilots to operate drones across much longer distances. Wing Aviation, a subsidiary of Google, received some of the first certifications and started a pilot program to deliver food and pharmaceuticals in Virginia.

Amazon will now be able to join Google in drone deliveries. The company wasn’t prepared to start sending out delivery drones immediately, and it has declined to state where such deliveries will begin. But last year the company revealed that its fleet can carry packages weighing up to five pounds and deliver them within a 15-mile range in less than 30 minutes.

The FAA also recently granted the company Zipline a temporary waiver allowing it to deliver medical supplies in North Carolina. Zipline had been operating for some time in Africa, but the United States continues to lag behind both developed and developing nations in giving drone companies the freedom to test their services.

While Amazon still faces several technical and regulatory hurdles, it’s great that the government is giving it this new room to maneuver. Too bad it took the feds this long to allow it, especially as the pandemic made drone deliveries not just a futuristic innovation but something we could have used yesterday.