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

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.


December 4, 2013
By Bloomberg

Topics

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.

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“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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