The tech industry, for years, has promised that drones — aircraft vehicles that operate without a pilot on board — are the future of delivery. The small aircraft have increasingly entered the skies above U.S. cities, dropping products including food and medical supplies at or near peoples’ doorsteps.
But mainstream implementation of drone delivery services is most likely still years off. Industry leaders say the federal agency in charge of civil airspace is taking its time crafting regulations that will make it legal to fly drones for commercial purposes, including delivery.
“The technology has moved quickly forward, and the policies and regulations have lagged behind,” Lisa Ellman, the co-executive director of the Commercial Drone Alliance in Washington, D.C., said in a phone interview this week.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has, over the past year, allowed top companies to test drone delivery programs in urban and rural areas across the U.S. And the agency is collecting information on how those programs play out in order to inform the rules for commercial drone use, which experts say could make drone delivery legal within the next two to five years.
Major tech industry companies have ambitious plans. Uber last week announced that it has received FAA approval to start making food deliveries to customers in San Diego this summer. And just the week before that, Amazon revealed its latest updates saying in a blog post that it expects to start “delivering packages via drone to customers within months.”
But stakeholders in drone delivery complain that the FAA’s approach has been overly cautious. And privacy activists, labor unions and consumer groups for years have pushed to implement safeguards before widespread deployment.
Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), at a Senate Commerce subcommittee hearing on Tuesday, said drones have “the potential to revolutionize the way we live and conduct business,” adding they can get “packages to doorsteps, [help with] rescue missions, aid those in need, take out our garbage.”
“Yet … we must acknowledge that while drones offer many benefits, there are safety and privacy risks,” Markey added.
As of right now, mainstream commercial use of drones is significantly limited because it is mostly illegal to operate commercial drones over people, at night or beyond the operator’s “line of sight.”
But commercial drone use is expanding rapidly in the country, with the FAA reporting about 4,000 of the more than 1 million registered drones are being used by businesses.