- The Federal Aviation Administration has completed its first rules governing commercial drone usage, limiting aircraft under 55 pounds to flying at levels under 400 feet, and at least five miles away from any airport. Drones can fly higher if within 400 feet of a taller building or structure. Most also are limited to flying during daylight hours.
- Drone operators must be at least 16 years old and recertified for drone flying every two years. When piloting a drone, the operator must have the drone within sight at all times, and be accompanied by an observer.
- The 624-page rulebook doesn't cover e-commerce drones designed for delivery purposes, which likely will have to wait for later rulemaking. Amazon alone has spent more than $600,000 over the last three years lobbying to use drones for delivery, according to Center for Responsive Politics data cited by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
The arrival of the FAA's rulebook may mark the beginning of a new era in some sense, though the truth is that the commercial drone market already has taken off in absence of such rules. The FAA itself already has certified more than 460,000 drone operators already who are licensed to pilot two or more drones. Also, companies across a wide variety of industry verticals already are deep into developing their own use cases for drones.
Retail is just one of those industries. Amazon's embrace of drone technology for product delivery is well known, and it was one of the bigger name parties that has complained about the FAA's glacial progress in developing drone regulations. The e-commerce giant also has developed its own proposals for how delivery drones could be safely operated in an increasingly crowded low-altitude commercial airspace, though it is not clear that the FAA took any cues from Amazon in completing its final rules.
Wal-Mart late last year also admitted that it's interested in drone delivery services, and has been evaluating drone technology as part of its broader, multi-billion-dollar push to invest in new technologies that might help it revitalize its financials, as well as recast its image as a little more cutting-edge than that of an old school brick-and-mortar institution.
Unfortunately, many retailer drone projects will have to remain in a holding pattern until the FAA gets around to issuing a separate set of rules governing drones for product delivery purposes.
Still, this week's news likely will trigger a new wave of companies and drone operators registering with the FAA. The rules lend some structure to a sector that has invited Wild West comparisons in the past, though the FAA still left an opening for its rules to be waived in cases where companies or individual operators can show how they can mitigate safety risks of operating at night or out of the sight range of the operator, for example.
Despite the heft of this rulebook, the evolution of drone operation remains in the earliest stages of its infancy. In the retail industry, we still need to see what additional guidelines become ballast on the e-commerce market's drone ambitions. The FAA's progress thus far should give retailers greater confidence to pursue their own drone delivery ambitions, as it looks like it's only a matter of time until these projects take to the air, but be aware that we haven't heard the last from regulators on this topic. None of the words in this very long rulebook represent the last word on drones.