Almost every major logistics company in operation today is experimenting with drone deliveries. Most believe that delivering packages through the air with autonomous drones will more efficient and also more cost-effective than doing so on land.
Until now, however, one major player has been excluded—Amazon. That changed on Monday as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) granted Amazon’s Prime Air division an “air carrier” designation. This allows it to start carrying out commercial delivery trials in the U.S.
Amazon intends to do so using the hexagon-shaped hybrid drone that it revealed last year. At this point, it remains unclear where or when Amazon will launch its first trials.
Joining the Party
A handful of companies have already gained FAA approval for their various drone delivery programs. Amazon lagged behind while it worked to meet the agency’s regulatory and technical requirements. Monday’s approval means that Amazon has successfully cleared those hurdles and is ready to start delivering packages through the air.
David Carbon, an Amazon vice president who oversees the Prime Air division, says, “This certification is an important step forward for Prime Air and indicates the FAA’s confidence in Amazon’s operating and safety procedures for an autonomous drone delivery service that will one day deliver packages to our customers around the world.”
Notably, this isn’t Amazon’s first foray into the world of drone deliveries. The e-commerce giant previously performed experimental trials in the U.K. It also operates several test sites in the U.S. Northwest and in Vancouver, Canada. Although there isn’t a guarantee, it seems likely that these hubs could host drone trials in the near future.
Last year, Amazon announced plans to deliver packages weighing up to five pounds to customers within a 7.5-mile radius of its warehouses.
For the logistics world, getting the FAA to approve drone delivery programs hasn’t been easy. Many of the agency’s regulations were designed for passenger flights—not autonomous drones. Applicants have had to get waivers for requirements like needing a flight attendant on board and mandatory seatbelts for pilots.
Nonetheless, several companies have managed to snag all-important approvals. Google’s Wing subsidiary has been conducting drone delivery trials in Virginia since getting cleared last year. Meanwhile, UPS is flying medical supplies within a Raleigh, North Carolina, hospital campus. Smaller startups are working on getting their own stamps of approval.
Even so, routine drone deliveries are likely still a few years away.
The FAA is currently developing a set of regulations to oversee drone flights that pass over crowds. This is obviously an important thing for drone deliveries as they will frequently pass over office buildings and streets. One noteworthy regulation will require drones to broadcast their location to minimize terrorism risks and the likelihood of crashing into another aircraft.
Meanwhile, logistics companies still need to perfect the autonomous systems that will fly their drones. In order for drone deliveries to be realistic, they need to be able to fly on their own without human oversight. Understandably, that sort of progress won’t be made overnight.