The U.S. Department of Transportation this week unveiled 10 locations throughout the U.S. that have received federal approval for airborne drone projects to be operated by Apple, Uber, FedEx and others, though Amazon and other retail-specific drone delivery operators were noticeably absent from the list of project participants.
Amazon reportedly applied for federal approval for a project that would have allowed it to deliver packages in New York City via drone, and issued a statement calling the government’s decision not to approve its application “unfortunate,” according to The Guardian.
The complete list of approved locations is: Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma in Durant, Oklahoma; City of San Diego, California; Virginia Tech - Center for Innovative Technology in Herndon, Virginia; Kansas Department of Transportation in Topeka, Kansas; Lee County Mosquito Control District in Ft. Myers, Florida; Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority in Memphis, Tennessee; North Carolina Department of Transportation in Raleigh, North Carolina; North Dakota Department of Transportation in Bismarck, North Dakota; Reno, Nevada; and University of Alaska-Fairbanks in Fairbanks, Alaska.
Some of the initial excitement of the potential for drone delivery of retail products and packages in the U.S. has faded over the last couple of years as it became clear that development of drone regulations is moving at what might be politely termed a deliberate pace. Those with drone delivery ambitions can at least take solace that the federal government is doing something about it.
"Data gathered from these pilot projects will form the basis of a new regulatory framework to safely integrate drones into our national airspace," U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao said in her department’s announcement of the drone project approvals.
Still, as we close in on the halfway point of 2018, some minor forward movement on the regulatory front only makes earlier predictions of commercial drone delivery activity in the U.S. by 2020 look overeager in retrospect.
This round of approved drone projects (or more specifically, those given waivers to the current drone ban) overall don’t appear to have advanced any of the broader retail sector’s ambitions for drone delivery. None are retail-specific projects, unless you count Uber’s desire to deliver food by drone in San Diego, FedEx’s plan to transport packages from the Memphis airport, or the Virginia Tech project that mentions package delivery as one of several applications, according to The Guardian.
There are some other familiar names involved. For example, Flirtey, which paired up with 7-Eleven for drone delivery in Reno in 2016, is back, but this time testing delivery of emergency medical supplies by drone in the Reno area.
More drone project approvals could come in the months ahead. Both Amazon and Walmart recently have become more pragmatic in their drone development efforts, focusing on perfecting safety and communications capabilities. Amazon also said in its statement that it continues to focus on drone safety, which may be the only thing it can realistically focus on until the federal government takes the training wheels of drones for good.