Since news first leaked that Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN) wanted to use unmanned drones to deliver packages, the idea has been a bit of a punchline.
The idea of flying drones bringing orders from the warehouse to your door (or perhaps window) seems more science fiction than reality, and most people doubted it would actually take off. There was good reason for that doubt, since the Federal Aviation Administration not only bans the use of drones in commercial applications but does not even permit testing for potential business uses.
However, the FAA has now softened its stance and what once seemed impossible has inched a little closer to reality. You will not be getting same-day, or even same-hour, drone delivery service from Amazon just yet, but progress is underway.
What the FAA did
The FAA issued Amazon an "experimental airworthiness certificate" that will allow the retailer to test its drones outdoors in preparation for delivery operations. This is a major reversal of previous policy, but it is only a small victory since the FAA included many conditions in the permission.
The FAA explained its ruling in a press release:
The FAA typically issues experimental certificates to manufacturers and technology developers to operate a [unmanned aircraft system] that does not have a type certificate.
Under the provisions of the certificate, all flight operations must be conducted at 400 feet or below during daylight hours in visual meteorological conditions. The UAS must always remain within visual line-of-sight of the pilot and observer. The pilot actually flying the aircraft must have at least a private pilot's certificate and current medical certification.
The certificate also requires Amazon to provide monthly data to the FAA. The company must report the number of flights conducted, pilot duty time per flight, unusual hardware or software malfunctions, any deviations from air traffic controllers' instructions, and any unintended loss of communication links. The FAA includes these reporting requirements in all UAS experimental airworthiness certificates.
At face value, Amazon just got the right to do a fair amount less than what the average person who buys a drone from his or her local hobby shop can. However, the FAA decision is important, because it does allow Amazon to move forward with testing. Had the ruling body not granted permission even for tests, Amazon would likely have taken its drone program abroad.
So while the FAA has provided no long-term decisions as to the possible use of drones in commercial applications, it did buy a little time for Congress to take up the issue.
What happens next?
Drone delivery has already been used on a limited basis by a major retailer in China, CNN reported.
For drones to become options in the United States, the FAA needs to create a framework for their use, which President Barack Obama supports doing. Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ), a member of the upper-chamber committee that oversees the FAA, believes it is time for the agency to address this issue.
"For us to remain globally competitive, there's not a moment to spare: The FAA should fast-track the approval of these safety regulations and privacy protections," he wrote in a piece for CNN.
At his urging, along with mounting pressure from Amazon and other businesses, the FAA should have no choice but to specify the rules under which drones might be tested and ultimately deployed.
Will drones happen?
It seems unlikely Amazon will be flying delivery drones in the United States on a widespread basis anytime soon. But this latest sign of the agency's willingness to at least consider the issue suggests it could happen someday.
Amazon -- and other businesses that seek to use the technology -- need to demonstrate that drones are safe and that using them will not lead to privacy violations. That is going to require testing and probably some fairly strict regulation, but it is possible.
A drone will not drop off the latest Stephen King novel or some much needed K-Cup coffee packs in the next few months, but perhaps it might in the next year or two. That might not be as fast as Amazon wants, but it is a more hopeful outcome than could have been expected even a few weeks ago.