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It’s fun to make fun of Amazon’s delivery drones. “Amazon is exploring drone delivery,” tweeted Atlantic writer Philip Bump last night. “Or, put another way, ‘Amazon gimmick gimmick gimmick.’ ” Today’s Gizmodo headline was even more gleeful: “Amazon Drones Are Truly Revolutionary [Marketing].”
Dogpiles might be unseemly, but with the future of commercial drones currently being determined by the FAA, this kind of publicity deserves a heaping of scorn. On last night’s 60 Minutes, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, unveiled Prime Air, a drone-based delivery service that could drop small packages off to customers within a half-hour. According to Bezos, it could happen “as early as 2015,” depending on the FAA’s upcoming regulations.
Some might call that optimistic. The FAA has until September of 2015 to come up with a detailed rundown of how it plans to regulate the safe operation of drones in commercial American airspace. Don’t try to parse that last sentence—it’s intentionally circuitous, because the FAA doesn’t want to commit to actual regulations or deployment of commercial drones by 2015. It’s a relatively hollow deadline, and the agency won’t be pinned down on what sort of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) will be in the air by the end of 2015 (trust me, we’ve tried).
But the experts we’ve talked to, whose livelihood revolves around the planned rollout of commercial flying robots, have come to a relatively universal census: the first wave of commercially-operated drones will be little more than remote-control aircraft.
Specifically, the FAA is expected to initially certify and approve the use of small UAS under three conditions: they must fly in daylight, they must stay below 400 feet, and they must remain within line-of-sight of a human operator at all times.