Outside of Google's self-driving cars, it's hard to come up with a innovation that has caused more buzz in the last few years than Amazon's bold proposal to start delivering consumer products via remote-controlled flying drones. While some thought leaders (and Amazon Prime addicts) welcomed the possibility of embracing our new robotic consumerism overlords, others were not so keen on adding the unusual-looking quad copters to the list of potential same-day shipping solutions. Amazon, undeterred by naysayers and potential FCC complications, filmed its test flights out of the country to emphasize their viability, and it's beginning to look like that may have been a very smart move.
The FCC Is On Board—Or Is It?
As SupplyChain247 reported in March 2015, the FCC has issued a company-specific "experimental airworthiness certificate" which allows Amazon to hold future test flights stateside. After meeting initial resistance to domestic testing and heading out of the country to do their physical R&D, the FCC seemed to capitulate to the hovering—no pun intended—threat of the mega-company moving those lucrative research dollars overseas permanently. Unfortunately, that certificate still comes wrapped with a dubious bow: The drones may only be piloted by individuals that have passed an FCC test and received a license, never fly more than 100 miles per hour, and, perhaps the most troubling restriction of all, cannot leave the operator's line of sight.
The line of sight rule is in line with civilian domestic drone operators must follow, but that fairness could end up being the Achilles' heel of commercial progression. Rather than simply pressing a button and deploying drones from joystick-equipped operator consoles, the operators must physically travel with the drones, shooting a hole in perceived cost reductions.
An Item Drop Let-Down
In an understandably cautious move from a government still smarting from widespread criticism on military drone policies, SupplyChain247 also reports that the FCC restrictions state that items cannot be dropped from drones. Again, as this is essentially Amazon's entire plan, the restrictions pose a real problem for development and progression. There are ways around it, of course: A drone operator could navigate to an individual front door on a busy city street and the recipient could remove their package manually, but that scenario doesn't exactly scream efficiency.
Accounting for vertical delivery—such as to the upper floors of a tall city apartment building—however, still offers tantalizing shipping solutions that remove the need to climb stairs or take elevators up or down. The catch would be the 400 foot mark—the upper flight height limit designated by the FCC restrictions.
The Future: More Tests, More Lobbying
Every move forward that Amazon makes in terms of drone development and deployment drags their competitors along with them, whether they like it or not. While the FCC's certificate was provided to Amazon in particular, it's unlikely that more permanent legislation will take a similar company-specific track. If it did, cries of preferential treatment and marketplace tampering wouldn't be very far behind, and the ensuing outcry could be enough to ground drones for good. Careful lobbying and building unique and responsive infrastructure will be where Amazon will shine as the drone debates play out.
Ultimately, if enough businesses support the move towards drone delivery, service flight providers will start to pop up with shipping solutions that don't require a "company airforce" of drone operators. Consumers benefit from faster receipt of goods, innovative businesses can offer time-sensitive products like cold ice cream and hot pizza in a wider delivery area than ever before, and cottage industries for drone improvements and efficiency will begin to develop as well.