On Sunday night’s “60 Minutes,” Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos announced Prime Air, a revolutionary service that would see unmanned drones deliver packages to customers’ homes in just 30 minutes. But as amazing as Amazon Prime Air sounds, there are some major legal roadblocks to it ever getting off the ground.
For starters, Amazon Prime Air is illegal at the moment, as the commercial use of drones is currently banned by the Federal Aviation Administration. Under current regulations, hobbyists are permitted to fly drones as long as they keep them within eyesight. Special exceptions are also made for law enforcement agencies and some universities to operate drones, but that’s about it.
Last month, though, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta announced a five-year plan to overhaul the agency’s regulations on drone aircraft. Huerta said that over the next five years, he expects some 7,500 drones to begin operating, but from the specifics of his plans, Amazon Prime Air’s "octocopters" may not be among them.
Amazon is working with the FAA on the issue, attempting to fit its way into the FAA guidelines. An FAA spokesman confirmed to Politico that Bezos and his people “let our safety organization know of his plans.” Still, just communicating with the agency might not be enough. Under the FAA’s proposed guidelines, every drone would be required to have its own dedicated pilot. Amazon, on the other hand, wants its drones to operate semi-autonomously, flying to and from programmed GPS points with little hands-on oversight.
Even if Amazon manages to convince the FAA that not every drone needs a dedicated pilot, there are still a host of logistical issues to deal with. Operating delivery drones inside a major city could lead to collisions with buildings, people or other drones, as well as the possible theft of the drones and their cargo themselves. If Prime Air is going to happen, Bezos needs to address all of these concerns and more to the FAA.
“The hard part here is putting in all the redundancy, all the reliability, all the systems you need,” he said on “60 Minutes.” “This thing can’t land on somebody’s head while they’re walking around their neighborhood. That’s not good.”
Bezos will also have to explain his plans before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. According to Buzzfeed, Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., plans a hearing of the committee specifically to address Amazon’s plans.
“Amazon’s plans for using drones to deliver packages is just one example of the potential this technology offers consumers, and a reflection of the ingenuity of American business,” Rockefeller said. “As we move forward toward integrating drones into civilian life and capitalizing on the economic opportunities they offer, we must make certain that these aircraft meet rigorous safety and privacy standards. I plan to hold a hearing early next year to explore the potential economic benefits of unmanned vehicles in our airspace as well as the potential risks they may create.”
Other politicians have their sights on Amazon’s drone program as well. Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., has introduced a bill that would require all drone operators to report on all data collected by the drones to the FAA, thereby reducing chances of spying.
“Before our skies teem with commercial drones, clear rules must be set that protect the privacy and safety of the public,” Markey said in a statement on Amazon’s drone announcement.