High-flying drones face regulatory challenges

Drones are big business in the Valley. According to CB Insights, $300 million of venture capital was invested in drone startups last year. They are following in the coat tails of giant brands like Wal-Mart who are exploring the possibilities offered by drone deliveries – and Facebook is even exploring use of drones to provide Internet access.

Both Amazon and Google have announced plans to begin drone-based deliveries by 2017, but their utility doesn’t end with consumer markets - enterprises are investigating highly secure delivery and communication using drones.

The drone theory is that items can be dispatched immediately, no matter what the weather and can reach difficult, remote or dangerous locations more easily.

This is not really about efficiency, however. Ignoring the potential to replace human operatives with robots, the number of packages delivered annually makes this an interesting segment. Giant courier firm UPS delivers 18 million packages and documents each day, generating revenue of $58 billion in 2014. As delivery services continue to expand, drone deliveries become an attractive option to many.

Google announced its drone delivery project in August 2014 with a video showing prototype efforts in Australia. "Our goal is to have commercial business up and running in 2017," said David Vos, the leader for Alphabet's Project Wing.

There are though regulatory and technology challenges to overcome. Aviation authorities worldwide want to put appropriate rules in place to govern drone use, being concerned about collisions, helicopter or aircraft impacts, accidental or deliberate death of innocents as well as infrastructure security.

The US is the world’s most advanced drone market, and FAA and U.S. Department of Transport (DOT) are fast-tracking proposals to regulate their use. Draft proposals published in February 2015 allowed companies to fly drones at an altitude of 500 feet at speeds of up to 100 miles per hour during daylight hours. All but the smallest drones, less than 250 grams, must have at least one operator, no flying at night, no flying beyond line of sight, and no flying over populated areas, and as of December 2015, drones must be registered to fly.

These limitations get in the way of the aspirations of those hoping to replace van deliveries. The Small UAV Coalition (which includes Wal-Mart as well as Amazon and Google in its 25-strong membership), wants drone flight to be allowed day and night and licensed drone operators to be able to fly them above people. They also want a higher ceiling and the right to fly outside sight – not so surprising when you consider their desire to use drones to make deliveries.

The Small UAV Coalition thinks all drones (including hobbyists) should constantly transmit identification and location using the ADS-B system, so flight paths, airspace access and collision avoidance can be managed by computers and analytics.

The FAA is already working on such a system and is currently monitoring tests of an air traffic system for drones using PrecisionHawk technology that provides this kind of connected traffic control – it isn’t easy: “Building technology that enables drones to fly reliably and to stay away from airports and other flying objects is stupidly difficult,” Bob Young, CEO of PrecisionHawk told The Guardian.

It seems clear that regulators are likely to allow drones to do more in future as the technology evolves and they gain more accurate risk data on which to base the law surrounding real world use of these technologies.

Outside the US most advanced economies are presently adopting a “wait and see” approach to UAV regulation, presumably to learn from the US experience. Meanwhile early adopters are looking at inventive ways of making drones useful within current limitations.

Truck maker Workhorse (they make the UPS fleet) is developing drone technologies for use by delivery drivers. The drone sits on the truck and helps deliver packages to residences on the edge of the main route, reducing the cost of delivery by making the process more efficient – for example, a driver may have three deliveries on one road and a single one on an adjacent street, which the drone could deliver on his behalf.

However, lack of regulation or a legal framework with which to define accountability means that at present Santa will be sticking with his sleigh – though it seems inevitable Rudolf and the rest will see competition in the next few years.

Discover how drones are being used in agriculture, emergency services and medicine in the blog One day a drone may save your life.

Jon Evans

Jon Evans is a highly experienced technology journalist and editor. He has been writing for a living since 1994. These days you might read his daily regular Computerworld AppleHolic and opinion columns. Jon is also technology editor for men's interest magazine, Calibre Quarterly, and news editor for MacFormat magazine, which is the biggest UK Mac title. He's really interested in the impact of technology on the creative spark at the heart of the human experience. In 2010 he won an American Society of Business Publication Editors (Azbee) Award for his work at Computerworld.