The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) expects to issue proposed rules for the commercial operation of small (under 55 pounds) drones by the end of this year. If enacted, such rules would likely prevent most drone-based delivery services being floated by large tech firms.
Google and Amazon are among the companies that have conducted experiments and test flights to see how unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, could be used to deliver products to customers. While the FAA is not providing details of that proposal, an article in the Wall Street Journal on Monday reported those rules could include aviation licensing requirements for operators.
Other restrictions being considered by the FAA would require operators to fly below 400 feet and only during daylight hours, according to the Journal. Operators would also have to keep the unmanned vehicles within their sights, according to the article.
'Impossible to Speculate'
We reached out to FAA spokesman Les Dorr Jr. to learn more about what the agency is proposing. Dorr said the FAA is not currently discussing the details of its proposed regulations. He added that whatever information was published in the Wall Street Journal, "they didn't get it from us."
The agency plans to release its proposed rules sometime before the end of the year, after which there will be a 60-day period for public comment. The FAA is then required to respond to any issues raised during the public comment period and determine whether those justify making changes to the proposed regulations, Dorr said.
How long might it take after that for any rules to become finalized and adopted? "It's really impossible to speculate," Dorr said, adding that a lot will depend upon how many people comment and what changes those comments might require to the proposed rules.
Not Yet Ready for Prime (Air) Time
This summer, news emerged that Google had successfully tested remote delivery in Australia using its "Project Wing" drone. In the test, a small UAV, a bit bigger than a seagull, delivered a package of dog treats to a man standing outdoors on a cattle ranch.
Google spokesman Raymond Gobberg told us at the time, "It's going to be a few years before we have a system ready -- this has much more in common with the self-driving than with the remote-controlled planes you might see in the park on the weekend."
Amazon has also posted a video showing an experimental flight of its concept "Prime Air" delivery service, which CEO Jeff Bezos first revealed during a "60 Minutes" interview in late 2013.
While the FAA considers new regulations for commercial drone flights, it has allowed would-be operators to apply for exemptions under its existing rules. Those currently allow small-UAV flights under limited, low-risk conditions without any certification requirements. Among those that have so far requested such exemptions are Amazon, movie production companies and oil pipeline operators.
Earlier this month, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) backed an FAA decision in which it fined Raphael Pirker $10,000 in connection with a 2011 UAV flight over the University of Virginia campus. In its ruling, the NTSB affirmed the FAA's ruling that UAVs "meet the legal definition of 'aircraft,' and that the agency may take enforcement action against anyone who operates a [UAV] or model aircraft in a careless or reckless manner."