Drones for Commercial Delivery Subject to New FAA Rules

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued new rules in December 2020 governing commercial drone activity. The move comes amid a growing interest in expanding the usage of drones to assist with delivery. Delivery items include food, medical supplies, books, and numerous other small items. The newly issued rules go into effect in February 2021. They are a step forward toward developing broad safety standards rather than evaluating drone usage on a case-by-case basis. However, the widespread usage of commercial drones still remains years away.

“The new rules make way for further integration of drones into our airspace by addressing safety and security concerns. They get us closer to the day when we will more routinely see drone operations such as the delivery of packages”, remarked FAA chief Steve Dickson. The creation of industry standards had been in the works since the Obama administration days. The FAA issued the proposed rules last year. After a rigorous evaluation process, the agency issued the final set of rules on December 28, 2020.

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What the New FAA Rules Require

The rules require commercial drones to be designed to be identifiable remotely by law enforcement officials. This means manufacturers must equip them with remote ID sensors, a requirement national security officials advocated. Remote ID functions like a digital license plate, broadcasting identification, take-off location, and real-time tracking information. Drone manufacturers have 18 months to retrofit their drones with remote ID systems.

Furthermore, the rules mandate that drones used at night be equipped with flashing anti-collision lights. The lights must be visible from up to three miles away. The rules also address the safety of people on the ground. Small drones flying over people may not have rotating parts capable of cutting skin. Drones may fly only over areas that the FAA specifically designates. Operators will require special training.

Drones Increasingly Used for Delivery

With more than 1.7 million drones under registration, drones are the fastest-growing transportation segment. Pilotless systems are already used for inspecting pipelines, monitoring industrial facilities, and diagnosing structural issues on railroad tracks and bridges. They are invaluable for collecting data and spotting problems from a unique vantage point.

The commercial usage of drones thus far has been quite limited. Wing Aviation, a subsidiary of Google’s parent company Alphabet Inc., has tested food and beverage delivery in Australia as part of a pilot program. Wing Aviation became the first drone delivery company in the United States to get FAA approval for an air operator certificate in 2019, which permits the use of aircraft for commercial purposes. United Parcel Service (UPS) also received FAA approval in 2019 to fly delivery drones. UPS has been operating a drone delivery service on a hospital campus in North Carolina that has been successfully delivering medical supplies.

Amazon’s drone delivery fleet, called Amazon Prime Air, received similar approval from the FAA in mid-2020. It has been working on air deliveries through a trial program and has ambitions to operate the service on a large scale. Amazon stated that it would like its MK27 drone to be able to deliver packages that weigh up to 5 pounds within 7.5 miles of an Amazon warehouse to customers in as little as 30 minutes.

But Drones Can Be Noisy

One obstacle to deployment of widespread drone operations is the noise disruptions. People on the ground have voiced concerns that the noise levels stemming from drones exceeds residential noise standards and can pose issues on the ears of humans and pets. In response to this concern, some drone companies have been working on the development of a noise-abatement propeller.

Potential safety issues have been another hindrance to widespread deployment. There is a concern about drones hitting people, power lines, or other hazardous objects. If commercial drone delivery becomes more commonplace in the future, more complex air traffic control rules would need to be developed.

The FAA has laid out detailed measures for determining acceptable risks in the event of a drone crash. For example, the rule states that “small unmanned aircraft must not cause injury to a human being that is equivalent to or greater than the severity of injury caused by a transfer of 25 foot-pounds of kinetic energy upon impact from a rigid object, does not contain any exposed rotating parts that could lacerate human skin upon impact with a human being, and does not contain any safety defects.

National Security Concerns

The FAA rules also attempt to address concerns related to national security, privacy, and law enforcement. A hijacked or terrorist drone could pose a threat to civilians. Regulators have endeavored to strike the right balance between strict remote identification rules and maintaining consumer data privacy. Despite international efforts to create web-based networks across national boundaries, the FAA has presently declined to incorporate this cross-border concept out of security concerns.

The highly awaited drone rules are an important milestone toward facilitating commercial drone activities that could benefit customers. U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao summarized the sentiment: “These final rules carefully address safety, security, and privacy concerns while advancing opportunities for innovation and utilization of drone technology.”

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