Rules Are Set for Unmanned Aircraft; Progress Will Drone on Slowly

Proposed rules for the operation of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), commonly known as drones, should ground  proposed e-commerce delivery networks such as the Amazon Prime Air for some time to come. They require a dedicated operator for each craft who must maintain unaided visual contact throughout its flight, for instance. But the rules released for public review by the Federal Aviation Administration this week essentially assure the future of remote delivery systems in the United States.

“Actually, I was surprised by how liberal the rules were; for instance, allowing drones to operate at up to 500 feet,” says Chuck Chamberlain, a 24-year operations veteran of the Postal Service, now a consultant with Ursa Major Associates. “Still, the FAA’s approach is cautionary and it needs to remain cautious. The agency has already recognized that drone traffic is going to happen.”

The rules, to be published in the Federal Register, require that UAS’s:

  • must weigh less than 55 pounds
  • may not be flown over people
  • must operate in daylight only with a three-mile weather visibility
  • may maintain air speeds up to 100 mph
  • must be controlled by operators licensed by FAA who must be retested every two years

Such new and revolutionary technology needs to be eased in, Chamberlain says. There are security considerations to weigh, such as drones being used by terrorists. Moreover, rules for UAS’s must presage  the eventual arrival of drones that travel over ground, underground, or through the water. “No one, for instance, has discussed air rights,” Chamberlain says. “Drones introduce new intrusion threats in terms of trespassing across private property, of potential crashes, of harm done to pets.”

Companies looking to take advantage of the technology must examine a complex web of business risks. Chamberlain says they must consider establishing countermeasures such as real-time drone neutralization, threat awareness networks, early warning systems, and education and awareness for citizens.

Delivering pharmaceuticals to isolated villagers, and not Christian Louboutins to fashionable city-dwellers is where drones will likely earn their wings. Safety and property rules matter little when drones are enlisted to do emergency service over rugged terrain. Matternet, a UAV (unmanned aerial vehicles) startup, has worked with Doctors Without Borders in Haiti and the World Health Organization in Bhutan, in flying diagnostic samples 20 miles or so from rural outposts to a central lab.

Such obvious benefits to society make resisting adoption of drones futile, though the pace of their adoption at scale will be set by the pace of commerce. “Innovation and growth in drones will be in proportion to the money and management talent devoted to it,” Chamberlain says.“Unless economic benefit can be obtained, money will stop feeding the progress.”

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