InTrans / Feb 27, 2015

‘Drone’ on: The future of US and UK commercial drones

Go! Magazine

Flying droneposted on February 27, 2015

n the last article of this series, “’Drone’ on: the next cell phone,” you learned about how drones have the potential for use in developing countries without requiring permanent infrastructure to transport necessities like water, food, and medicine. In this article, we are going to explore the most recent rules for commercial drones in the US and the UK, and some ideas for future commercial business ideas.

Imagine you need to order a textbook and you browse You waited a little bit too long, and the earliest the book can arrive is two days after you need to have read it for class. All is lost, right? Now re-think the situation. What if you purchased the book on Amazon and could click the option of getting that textbook in 30 minutes? You’re probably thinking “that’s crazy!” Though I admit it sounds a bit outrageous, Amazon, the largest US internet-based retailer, is quickly seeking approval for exploring drone delivery services for customers in the US.

Amazon's prototype drone
Amazon’s prototype drone.

In July 2014, Amazon wrote a letter to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in hopes to get approval for their newest idea: the “Prime Air” drone delivery system. They propose that instead of the two-day ground-service delivery option, you could choose a 30-minute air-delivery option.

Does that mean drones could be flying down my street soon?

Not quite. Or at least not anytime within the next year. The letter that Amazon wrote to the FAA asks for permission to conduct research and development on their own property in Seattle, Washington. Right now, Amazon must either fly the drones indoors or do test flights in another country.

So, why the holdup FAA?

Commercial drones have not yet “taken off,” per se, in the United States due in large to nation-wide safety concerns. On February 15, 2015, the FAA released a list of rules that would limit drones to weighing no more than 55 pounds, traveling no faster than 100 mph, and flying at a height of no higher than 500 feet. Also, the person operating the drone must have a special pilot certificate and keep the vehicle in their “line-of-sight” at all times. This would make the idea of Amazon’s drone delivery system out of the question for now because the drones would not always be in the operator’s line-of-sight.

Why the restrictions?

These restrictions are largely because of the privacy and security issues often related to drones and drone usage.

Drones hit a sensitive spot for most Americans—privacy. Drones equipped with cameras often give off the impression that they could be used recklessly or for the wrong reasons (such as spying). In January 2015, a mysterious drone landed on the lawn of the White House. This type of suspicious activity makes the public extremely wary of drone technology. Another concern, especially by the FAA, is that commercial drone use could interfere with other air traffic. For example, personal drones have reportedly flown close to airports, which could create havoc if the drone were to physically crash into a landing plane. Additionally, drones crashing into other drones could be an actual concern, especially considering the amount of orders shipped by retailers like Amazon.

Many Americans do see the usefulness of drones. For example, in a poll of nearly 2,400 Americans by, 62 percent of people agreed that police should be able to use drones to solve crimes, while 68 percent said drones should be used to deter crimes from happening.

So the question about privacy itself is tricky. Whose privacy is really of concern here and under what conditions could drones be truly useful?

Drones in the United Kingdom

Though the US government has become increasingly hesitant about drone technology, the United Kingdom (UK) has been moving forward with implementing the technology into their citizen’s everyday lives. Drones have been growing rapidly, with about 30 in January 2013, to no over 300 today. For instance, Domino’s Pizza, an international pizza chain, had a one-time drone delivery system—called the “DomniCopter”—in the United Kingdom that delivered two pizzas to individual homes in a heatwave bag in 2013. Though Domino’s performed the video of the “DomniCopter” to gain public attention, uses like these, with regulations, may be coming soon. For now, a lot of the requests for commercial drones in the UK include film and photographers, the police, mapping and surveying organizations, and others.

But even so, the proposal for Amazon’s drone delivery system also won’t “fly” in the UK. They have rules saying that the company must have a line-of-sight as well, saying the delivery must be within 500 meters (0.32 miles) of the warehouse.

Unless Amazon comes up with an idea that involves short distance delivery options so that the drones stay in the operator’s line-of-sight, then these drones won’t make it off the ground in either the US or the UK under the current laws.

Safety is important

At the end of the day, everyone wants drones to be used responsibly and safely. Without restrictions, drones can be used irresponsibly and thus cause potential harm to others. But the positive side is that implementing drones ignites the possibility of innovation and economic growth. It is estimated that over the next decade drones will account for $98 billion in cumulative global spending. Of that $98 billion, about $11.5 billion is said to be for commercial drone purposes.

By Jackie Nester, Go! Staff Writer

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