UAS attorney: Drone deliveries for the masses a long way off

By Patrick C. Miller | January 05, 2017

Are deliveries by drones getting closer to reality? Amazon Prime Air and Flirtey—working with 7-Eleven—have recently announced progress and provided examples of successful drone deliveries.

However, Jonathan Rupprecht, a commercial pilot, flight instructor, author on UAS law and attorney in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, believes there are some significant legal and regulatory hurdles that must be cleared before unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) can be used for package delivery on a broad scale.

“It’s exciting and new, but it’s an industry that hasn’t been around long and Part 107 hasn’t been around long,” he explained. “We haven’t had time to let these concepts and ideas be proven over time by being able to last and be profitable. It will be interesting going forward over the next couple years to see where we’re at.”

Last month, Amazon released a video showing one of its drones successfully delivering an Amazon Fire TV device and some dog biscuits to a customer near one of its fulfillment centers in Cambridge, England, where the company has a UAS research center. More recently, news stories revealed the retail giant’s patent for a blimp-like distribution center in the sky served by UAS.

Also last month, Flirtey announced that it had teamed with 7-Eleven for the first drone delivery to a customer’s home approved by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Flirtey said it has completed 77 autonomous drone deliveries to customer homes in the United States.

“These are great concepts, but is anyone really wanting to put down a bunch of cash to actually invest in the aircraft, the pilots and the infrastructure to actually do this?” Rupprecht asked.

In an online blog, he cited three legal challenges ahead that he believes need to be solved before drone package delivery becomes a practical reality. First, Part 107 is a barrier because it doesn’t allow for air carrier operations, requires that UAS remain within line of sight and cannot be flown autonomously.

Rupprecht also noted that FAA regulations prevent drones from being flown over people and are subject to airspace restrictions. As an example, he offered a map of the Phoenix, Arizona, area showing that a large part of the city is covered by restricted airspace.

“Doing drone deliveries in Phoenix would be difficult,” he said. “You might be able to do it in the outskirts or by targeting a specific region.”

In his blog, Rupprecht also notes that while the FAA can grant exemptions for beyond-line-of-sight operations using Section 333 commercial exemptions, it has yet to do so. Even those regulations require the drone to remain 500 feet away from non-participating people and property.

“It is hard to do package delivery in an urban or residential environment when you need to stay 500 feet away from everything,” Rupprecht wrote.

Finally, there are potential problems with states, counties and towns passing their own UAS regulations, an issue Rupprecht describes as “death by a thousand paper cuts.” A patchwork of regulations that vary from state to state, county to county and city to city discourage drone delivery services that must cross a variety of borders, he said.

“You hear that drones can save money and time and lives, and that’s okay,” Rupprecht said. “But does anybody have a game plan for the regulations? It’s frustrating. You go to one drone show and you’ve pretty much seen them all because they’re all saying the same thing. The entire drone industry seems to be having this superficial discussion with no real-life case studies or practical examples.”

A more practical approach, he said, would be to start with a pharmacy chain that has stores in or near affluent neighborhoods. The stores could use drones to deliver medicine to customers within line of sight. Eventually, the company would branch into autonomous, beyond-line-of-slight operations.

“You’ll see an incremental approach over time,” Rupprecht explained. “It will start in high-income suburban areas, move into the rural areas and then into the inner city as time goes on. That’s how it could progress, but you don’t hear that.”

The problem the UAS industry needs to overcome is being too “West Coast-minded,” which Rupprecht describes as “throwing technology at the problem and it will somehow collapse the walls of regulation.”

He said this approach doesn’t work and that industry decision makers need to escape the “community echo chamber” that reinforces it.

“Either they don’t know the regulations or they surround themselves with a lot of people who don’t know the regulations,” Rupprecht said. “I think there are some capabilities on the table that legally help to get drone delivery done, but they’re going to have to navigate the regulatory hurdles, and that’s going to become an essential part of how they do their operations.”