In August 29 new rules from the Federal Aviation Administration went into effect regarding drone operation. As reported in The Washington Post, the FAA has made the process for obtaining permission to operate a commercial drone much simpler, by eliminating the expensive and time-consuming requirement to receive a special waiver issued by the agency.
The FAA took this step in recognition of the accelerating growth in the drone market. The agency reported that combined sales for commercial and private drones are forecasted to reach 2.5 million units in 2016 and believes this could increase to 7 million by 2020.
Previous rules that remain in place
Some restrictions on private/commercial drone use continue in force. Their maximum weight (including cargo) cannot exceed 55 pounds, they are not allowed to fly faster than 100 miles per hour, they can only operate during the daytime, altitude is restricted to 400 feet, and they have to remain within sight of the operator. But meeting the qualifications to fly one of these devices is now comparable to earning a driver’s license—the personal variety, not a trucker’s CDL.
To be certified as a commercial drone pilot, the applicant must pass a written test that covers general aeronautical knowledge. The FAA study guide for it is around 80 pages in length—about the same as a driver’s license handbook in many U.S. states. The FAA already has on file thousands of applications to take the test under these new rules, an indication that there are plenty of businesses eager to get a jump on the competition.
The rush to launch commercial drone services could mean that any day now, we will be shipping a significant percentage of goods via robot aircraft. In regards to the near future, that is doubtful.
A quick look at the numbers cited above reveals the weakness in drone delivery as a practical means of moving goods around. Nothing heavier than 55 pounds, gross weight. Daylight operation only. Those are serious roadblocks.
The FAA clearly does not want to take chances with a large or heavy object flying over populated areas without a pilot on board. And even conventional cargo planes carrying many times that weight are useful for transporting only a very small fraction of the tonnage that crosses the United States every day. So as far as UAVs changing the way that our cargo gets to us, it will happen someday, but not tomorrow.
Trucks will endure
Over-the-road trucking began to supplement and then replace the railroads as the preferred method for large-scale shipping about a hundred years ago. There’s no other technology that can move so much freight with such flexibility. In the century since then, nothing else has surfaced that appears likely to dislodge the motor carrier as the most cost-effective means of meeting consumers’ and businesses’ demands.
One application where drones may find a delivery niche in the near future, interestingly enough, is in combination with trucks. Currently being tested are urban or interurban routes where a truck carries a drone-mounted on its roof. This is released as the driver approaches the delivery address. The drone is guided by GPS tracking to the drop off point, releases its package and reunites with the truck, which by then has moved on toward the next delivery.
A possible truck-drone duo raises more questions. Would the line-of-sight stipulation in the rules be interpreted to mean that there has to be an additional crew member involved? One person presumably can’t drive the truck and visually monitor the drone at the same time.
Drone delivery may eventually be adopted in one form or another but given all these kinks that need ironing out—plus its extremely limited range and payload—do not look for trucks and drivers to disappear from the roads for some time. Nevertheless, the technology has possibilities worth exploring.
One more thing: until further notice, every new drone will continue to be delivered to retailers and homes by truck monitored by GPS fleet tracking technology.