By now, you've probably heard about Amazon.com's (NASDAQ:AMZN) big news: a fleet of automated delivery drones will soon be dropping off packages of gadgets, underpants, office supplies, or anything else that doesn't weigh very much right at your door within minutes of your order. The Amazon Prime Air service, revealed by CEO Jeff Bezos last night on 60 Minutes, promises delivery in 30 minutes or less, perhaps even within two years. From the immediate social media reaction, you'd think that the skies were already a-swarm with Amazon-branded automatons. But this couldn't be further from the truth -- and not for the reasons you might expect.
Amazon's newly added Prime Air FAQ says that "one day, Prime Air vehicles will be as normal as seeing mail trucks on the road today" and claims that the company will be ready to launch as soon as, it hopes, "the FAA's rules will be in place as early as sometime in 2015."
The key word here is "hope," because at the moment, anyone who wants to use commercial drones in U.S. airspace must pass through the regulatory maze of the Federal Aviation Administration and various regional aviation authorities. To date, the FAA's only given out 114 special experimental certificates for drone use, and its daunting requirements for commercial clearance make it seem unlikely that we'll see the Amazon Drone Swarm dive-bombing our houses with new socks any time soon.
The FAA recently published a roadmap for integrating unmanned aerial vehicles into the American aviation system, with three timeframes for action: near-term (less than five years), mid-term (five to ten years), and long-term (more than ten years). For at least the next five years of near-term planning, the FAA expects to do little other than test, validate, and verify the safety and effectiveness of commercial unmanned vehicles in American skies.
This may understate the duration of the process, since the FAA only just began to allow passengers to use their mobile devices during takeoff and landing, despite having well over a decade to test the effects of wireless use on airplanes.
It's only toward the end of the mid-term stage that drones are expected to begin fully integrating into American airspace, which pushes the drone swarm out to around 2024. Drones are a good deal more complex than cell phones, at least where the aviation industry is concerned. Even if Amazon Prime Air were ready for action right now, Amazon won't be able to really capitalize on it for a decade.
Perhaps we're being too pessimistic. Former Wired editor and current drone-start-up CEO Chris Anderson pointed out that Amazon's time to market may wind up being determined more by its lobbying muscle than by its technical chops:
Delighted to see Amazon experimenting w/ drone delivery; now let's see how much appetite they have for lobbying the FAA to allow it— Chris Anderson (@chr1sa) December 2, 2013
Amazon's lobbying spending has been slowly rising throughout the decade. At $2.5 million (according to OpenSecrets), the company is one of the most profligate tech firms in Washington , placing tenth on the list for 2013 and accounting for slightly over 2% of the tech industry's total lobbying spending so far this year.
The company is hardly the only drone booster on Capitol Hill -- Northrop Grumman (NYSE:NOC), a major battlefield drone manufacturer, has spent over $13 million on lobbying this year , and its fellow defense contractors Lockheed Martin (NYSE:LMT) ($11 million) and Boeing (NYSE:BA) ($11 million) are also among the leading spenders on lobbying.
There's already a lobbying group, the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International , dedicated to this constituency, and this organization has built a "drone caucus" of 60 congressmen, according to the New Republic.
Drones have been a controversial subject thanks to their heightened and ethically ambiguous role on the battlefield, but Jeff Bezos' appearance on 60 Minutes could be the technology's greatest coup. For the first time, millions of Americans will see these unmanned vehicles doing something they can very much appreciate, and in a way that makes them look like harmless toy robots. Just take a look at Amazon's video of the Prime Air drone in action:
It almost looks like a puppy (with a bunch of propellers) bringing its master the morning paper, doesn't it? It was certainly great PR, but Bezos and his fellow drone boosters will have to break down several important regulatory barriers to wider commercial use.
The FAA's roadmap indicates that it may restrict drone operation to situations similar to manned flight , which appears likely to involve a person on the ground piloting the system. Its most burdensome rule is likely to be that "autonomous operations are not permitted. The [pilot must have] full control, or override authority to assume control at all times during normal [drone] operations."
It's certainly possible to implement a system where every drone has its driver, as is currently the case in military operations, but Amazon's implementation -- as with everything else it does -- probably hinges on shaving as much cost off as possible. Drone drivers can be costly to train and employ, and each Amazon fulfillment center will probably require dozens of drones for the system to work efficiently.
With the company so fresh off its acquisition of robotic warehouse optimization specialist Kiva, no one should realistically expect it to turn around and add a labor-intensive new technology to its fulfillment operations when it could automate the process instead. If the process can be done autonomously, or at least largely autonomously, you can expect Amazon to take that route. Of course, to do so, the drone lobby will need to bring pressure on the FAA.
When will the Amazon drone swarm ultimately take to the skies? It's hard to know, but it'll probably depend quite a bit on how pliant aviation regulators prove to be over the coming years. It might have taken the FAA a decade to let people use their cell phones during takeoff, no one seemed to be throwing money at congressmen to make that happen.
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