U.S. regulators shoot down Amazon's UAV dream

December 04, 2013
By Bloomberg
Dec. 4, 2013, Washington, D.C. - Less than 24 hours after Jeff Bezos floated the idea of delivering packages via airborne drones, the notion was met with balking by regulators and skepticism from the shipping industry.

The Federal Aviation Administration said Monday it doesn’t allow any commercial unmanned flights now, and judging by guidelines sketched as recently as Nov. 7, it won’t allow the robotic trips envisioned by Bezos.

United Parcel Service Inc., the largest shipping company, said it too has met with drone vendors and for now is content to stick to terra firma.

Bezos’s vision of selling books on a nascent Internet turned Amazon.com Inc. into the world’s largest online retailer, and his resulting $35.4-billion-US fortune has let him pursue other big ideas, such as space flight.

While he showed Sunday in a TV interview that Amazon’s prototype “octocopter” is able to deliver a small package, regulators have yet to be convinced the world is ready for robots with eight whirring propellers to drop in on suburban driveways.

“It’s unclear whether those commercial purposes will be allowed,” said Ben Gielow, general counsel of the Association for Unmanned Vehicles Systems International, an Arlington, Va.-based trade group.

The association is urging the FAA to open the door to broader drone use, as long as it’s safe. Bezos’s plan touches on a goal that UPS and rival FedEx Corp. have long studied — a way to deliver products to consumers the same day they’re ordered.

UPS has concluded that, for now, the demand is too small to overcome cost and technical challenges, chief sales and marketing officer Alan Gershenhorn said in an interview.

Technologies enabling use of small drones “are pretty far off,” said Gershenhorn, who added that UPS has heard the pitch from dronemakers and doesn’t anticipate using unmanned aircraft any time soon.

“Demand for same-day use is a niche offering,” he said.

The drones envisioned by Amazon would be programmed with GPS co-ordinates that let them fly directly to a customer’s door, dropping off books, food and other small goods, according to Bezos and a company video posted on Google Inc.’s YouTube.

Sunday on CBS’s 60 Minutes, Bezos said Amazon’s multirotor devices may be ready in four or five years.

The company is waiting for the FAA to set rules for the devices, he said. While Congress required the FAA to create rules allowing civilian drones to take flight by 2015, FAA administrator Michael Huerta said last month that full integration may take longer.

The FAA released a document Nov. 7 outlining its plans to start integrating drone-type vehicles into U.S. airways. Even so, the report specifically bars operation of unmanned aircraft that use a computerized flight path instead of being controlled by a person.

Small drones like the one demonstrated by Bezos are expected to have separate rules requiring they be flown within sight of an operator and only in unpopulated areas, said Gielow, the official from the unmanned vehicles trade group.

It may take a decade for the FAA and the unmanned aircraft industry to craft workable rules that ensure the safety and reliability of autonomous drones that deliver pizza and books, said John Hansman, an aeronautics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has studied drones.

In the early stages of such delivery systems, costs will be so high that drones will be practical only for tasks such as dispatching emergency medical supplies, Hansman said.

“You have to have appropriate controls,” he added.

Amazon said it’s working on a variety of models, including some that may be able to meet FAA requirements.

“The model featured on 60 Minutes is autonomous, but we have developed several prototypes in our lab,” Osako said.

When asked if that meant Amazon planned to have a pilot for each drone, Osako said the company “will comply with FAA regulations.”

Amazon wants the vehicles to be capable of delivering packages weighing as much as five pounds (2.3 kilograms) within a 16-kilometre radius, Bezos said.

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