FAA Rules On Commercial Drone Use
By Dr. Robert L. Gordon
Program Director, Reverse Logistics Management at American Public University
This summer, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) finally put forward rules and regulations to govern commercial drone activity. One important provision is that commercial drones must remain in sight of their operators, which restricts the proliferation of drone operations. Although the FAA issued this regulation for safety reasons and to address public safety concerns, this rule hampers the short-term growth of consumer applications of drone technology.
The FAA clearly understands that drone operations could still result in mid-air collisions that would endanger people on the ground. Although available technology does provide autonomous operations and collision avoidance, that technology has not yet been perfected.
Drone Operator Requirements Eased
The FAA dropped the provision that a drone pilot would need a commercial aviation license, because it was clear that a drone pilot would have a different skill set than a commercial pilot. Also, it did not sound reasonable to require a pilot’s license when a 12-year-old child could successfully pilot a drone with a little practice.
The FAA still requires some training to become a commercial drone pilot, but the training is not as lengthy or complex as conventional pilot training. The required drone pilot training could be more comparable to the training requirements for a commercial driver’s license. Drone pilot training will likely evolve further, just as training for pilots and truck drivers evolved over time.
FAA Rules Increase Consumer Safety But Affect Commercial Deliveries
FAA’s rules certainly made commercial drones safer for us on the ground. However, the new rules have almost eliminated the home delivery drone concept as made popular by Amazon.
Commercial drones will continue to offer limited application in agriculture, renewable energy and pipeline and power line inspections. Given the current rules, there is little likelihood that any of us will see large-scale commercial delivery drones.
New FAA Rules Hamper but Do Not Stop Commercial Drone Use
The FAA rules have not caused a full stop to delivery drone use. A Chinese retailer has already moved forward with using commercial home delivery drones. In fact, Walmart already works with JD.com in China to allow Walmart and Sam’s Club deliveries by drones. In the U.S., Virginia Tech is partnering with Chipotle to allow campus burrito deliveries by a drone.
The FAA rules make commercial drones safer simply by making them impractical in the U.S. from a business cost perspective. The current challenge for commercial drone delivery operations is the labor costs.
Although it appears that the current drone pilot monitoring requirement might create a boom in drone delivery personnel, the labor costs would not justify the use of drones. Unlike a truck driver making deliveries, a drone pilot would need to keep an eye on the drone while following it on foot. It is more cost-effective to have drivers in vans make deliveries than to have legions of drone pilots walking around following drones to their destinations.
Labor costs alone make commercial home delivery by drone commercially impractical. From the standpoint of making home delivery drones safe, the FAA accomplished that goal by making home delivery by drones economically unrealistic.
Local Drone Deliveries Still a Possibility As Technology Improves
In the short term, people are safe from commercial delivery drones because they simply will not be flying into any neighborhoods anytime soon. In the long term, technology may become sufficiently advanced to allow for self-piloting drones with collision avoidance technology.
At that point, delivery by drone will make economic sense. However, the FAA legislation will need to change to accommodate self-piloted drones.
This debate is no different from self-piloting cars. What will happen when self-piloting car technology becomes safer than a human driver? It will be interesting to see if the FAA will determine that technology is safe enough to move away from having any human pilot.
About the Author
Dr. Robert Lee Gordon is the program director for the Reverse Logistics Management department at American Public University. Robert has more than 25 years of professional experience in supply chain management and human resources. Dr. Gordon earned his Doctorate of Management and Organizational Leadership and his Masters of Business Administration from the University of Phoenix as well as earning a Bachelor of Arts degree in History from UCLA.