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Will FAA Rules Hinder Drone Delivery?

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The pandemic has sparked a wave of online shopping in the past year. The rapid adoption pushed the anticipated timeline for consumers to expand their online shopping forays. It also opened the door to a drone delivery industry to meet the growing demand for more online deliveries.

Companies struggling to compete with the advancing delivery options offered by Amazon and UPS are looking for drone delivery options. Will this be the future of delivery?

Aviation is an extremely regulated environment – including drones, or unmanned aerial vehicle systems (UAS). So what does this mean in terms of airspace safety? Will the FAA create special allowances for drones that allow them to fly autonomously to deliver packages faster than land delivery?

Maybe in the long run. But don’t expect your online purchases to fall out of the blue anytime soon, warns aviation safety expert Mark Baier, CEO of AviationManuals and ARC Safety Management Software Systems. It won’t be easy.

TechNewsWorld sought out Baier’s insights into the implications of the future of drone delivery in terms of aviation safety. Obviously, if federal regulations allow more leeway for drone deliveries, that accommodation could be a boon to e-commerce.

Hopeful Buzz in the Air

The two concepts – drone safety and the impact of drones on e-commerce – are related, Baier noted. Both topics have likely caused quite a stir about the potential of drone delivery over the past five or six years.

All that buzz hasn’t turned into reality yet. Some security concerns have not really been addressed or resolved.

That is a big step. First of all, I would like to say that in my opinion the delivery of drones is a virtual certainty. It’s just a matter of time and what scale and what the rollout will look like, ”he told Tech News World.

Most people imagine drone delivery will be like the science fiction we all have in mind of drones landing on our front yards filled with our packages. More so, people in the industry tend to think of it as a much more gradual process of guidance.

Maybe it will be a mixed approach for some time before we get really dedicated drone services for a wider variety of things. Baier thinks the only hurdle that was cleared a bit recently was a decision by the FAA on where to hold commercial drone operations.

More Regulated Than Not

The FAA had long been split between drone operations allowed under general aviation rules or as part of Part 135 aviation regulations rather than Part 121 regulations. The difference is significant.

Part 121 deals with commercial air services for scheduled flights with paying passengers or customers. Part 135 arranges on-demand and scheduled charter flights. Scheduled charter flights are usually limited to a few days a week.

That does mean that delivery drones may be more regulated than part of the drone industry was responsible. But at least now they have a roadmap to follow, Baier explained.

The FAA had to include some exemptions because those regulations are for passenger travel and passenger transportation. Of course you can follow the standardizations and the pipe fitting standards and protocols of the safety management system for commercial operators. However, exemptions had to take into account existing rules covering only passengers traveling and passengers with airports.

We see 100 years of manned flight regulations and learning. Baier thinks we’ll see the FAA try to find a middle ground over the next few years, so that drone regulations not only superimpose an existing, but slightly more burdensome regulatory process on top of something that is likely to be different in its own category. .

Getting Deeper Into Drone Delivery Potential

TechNewsWorld took on Baier in an in-depth conversation about how – and if – drone regulations and the consumer’s lust for fast airdrop service will ever safely co-exist.

TechNewsWorld: How competitive is the drone certification process under Part 135 regulations?

Mark Baier: Five operators who have applied for this Part 135 certificate so far have been authorized to perform drone deliveries. But it’s really still very, very specific, very limited with one drone operator involved. One certification is only for medical supplies to a particular hospital in North Carolina.

Another applicant is Flirtey, a Nevada transportation freight service provider. That company has not yet received certification. If approved, much of that drone’s travels will be over glades and farmland.

A third company is quite effective in delivering medical supplies to rural and remote areas. A fourth approved drone delivery service is for a company called Google Wings. I don’t know exactly what they are going to do.

Editor’s Note: Wing (pictured above) is a subsidiary of Alphabet, Google’s parent company. Also known as Project Wing; it currently offers trial delivery to parts of Christiansburg, VA.]

The fourth approved drone delivery service of the five applicants is Amazon Prime, Baier said.

Are some industries more economically viable to support drone deliveries?

Baier: The medical industry will certainly accelerate the use of drones for probably everything from plasma to organs, but even something as benign as insulin delivery to someone who may not be on a typical delivery route. I think the medical industry is really at the forefront of driving some of this because they can get more exemptions from a regulatory perspective as well.

One thing people need to understand at this point is that it’s not an economically viable way to deliver parcels. It probably won’t take a while. The drones are not as reliable as surface vehicles, so many of them are not equipped with equipment. Therefore, in bad weather, you should probably resort to road transport at this stage. So the cost-effectiveness of parcel delivery is probably down the road in some ways.

The companies that want to make drone deliveries have the financial resources to plow ahead. I also think that in some industries where cost is not an issue – where time is more important than cost – drones will come into play.

How difficult are drone operations on a reliable basis?

Baier: The commercial drone operations are difficult, even if it costs a lot of money. So I think drone parcel delivery is probably a long way off. But so far, I think Covid-19 and other factors are propelling it forward faster now than it likely would have happened before Covid.

How much influence does the weight of packages have on flying drones?

straight away. As far as I understand, the FAA is talking about the weight of the package being limited to four pounds. But there is a strange little quirk about that. The drone will come and hover about 20 feet above your property, actually lowering the package with a chain rather than landing and dropping it.

I think it involves safety, privacy and security issues that they haven’t sorted out yet. Those proximity issues pertain to avoiding pads, kids, etc, so they prefer to have the drone hovering and 20 feet. They lower the package and then fly away, so that you can carry less weight again.

As for drone operations, do the pilots fly them from fixed locations or are there GPS systems on board for automated deliveries?

Baier: At the moment drones are controlled by humans. The only difference with delivery drones is the placement of navigation equipment so that you can operate out of sight. So it has been instrumental improved, but there are still operators behind the flight controls; none of it is fully automated.

Some drones have geofencing and built-in protection mechanisms that are automated. If you lose contact with the drone, it will geofence or hover itself until you can find it.

Is it correct to draw a parallel between the logistics involved in the delivery of drones and self-driving cars?

Baier: We are definitely looking at two different things. Ground vehicles need many more sensors because of the obstacles on the ground. But I think at the moment it is also this factor of drones piloted under slightly more traditional aviation regulations. The two systems could one day both be fully automated. That is a very good chance, but it is a long way down the road.

What are other possible barriers to drones flying off the ground?

Baier: People forget that this can be regulated by the FAA up to 4,400 feet. Once you get below that level, you may see a layered patchwork of local, state, and provincial regulations eventually blending in with the FAA. So it could be that drone delivery in one place is faster than another just because local regulations will be different.

There is a lot more depth and complications for drone considerations than for an airplane necessarily flying in the airspace between airports. You will also still have privacy issues below the 400 feet you have to tackle with drones. There will be some liability and legal issues in that regard.

How does drone licensing work?

Baier: Drone operators are now expected to operate to higher standards. The licensing process is actually a certificate for that specific operator. Imagine UPS getting a drone division. That division would be completely separate from its own operating license. The company operating the drone reports directly to the FAA or the local office of the Flight Standards District Offices (FSDO).