Regulators have shown a marked shift in their stance against drones being used for commercial purposes, according to Google and Amazon, the two biggest U.S. companies seeking to use the technology for package deliveries.
The Wall Street Journal quoted sources from the two tech giants Tuesday (May 5) as stating regulators are suddenly not running so cold against drone test flights, among other issues. Indeed, on May 6 the Federal Aviation Administration unveiled plans with CNN and BNSF to study flights beyond the sight of human operators. The agency has stated the initiative will help uncover how to use drones in operations that may eventually include package delivery.
The FAA had proposed rules earlier this year that would prohibit such flights. Yet proponents of “beyond-sight” flights – including drone industry companies themselves – say they are necessary in order to make several applications feasible, enabling everything from pipeline inspections to deliveries. The FAA has required that one human oversee each drone flight, which makes large scale deployments difficult. At present the FAA allows only a Boeing Co. subsidiary and U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials to fly drones beyond sight off the coast of Alaska and along U.S. borders, respectively.
Those “beyond” flights are allowed by the FAA because air-traffic control manages separation between the drones and manned aircraft. Deliveries by Amazon and Google would take place in far busier airspace, and would require sensors and software that would help drones avoid obstacles. Several companies say they are getting closer to developing such technology, according to the Journal.
But Gur Kimchi, the head of Amazon’s delivery-drone project, told the Journal the FAA had recently become more open to his company’s efforts to use automated drones to deliver packages within 10 miles of a warehouse.
And Google has also noted a thaw. Dave Vos, head of Google’s delivery-drone project, said Tuesday (May 5) at a drone conference that “Honestly in the last two to three weeks, things have made a dramatic change. Three to four months ago, we were a little bit concerned about how much progress we could make here in the U.S., but … what we’re seeing today is significant opportunity to work here in the U.S. with the FAA.”
“I don’t know what triggered it,” Vos said later in an interview with the Journal. “They’re talking to us and we’re collaborating.”