My latest conspiracy theory is that Big Drone has created the urban mobility movement not because the Ubers and Amazons of the world think we’re really going to start flying passengers hither and yon, criss-crossing our cityscape skies with little multi-copters, but because they’re trying to distract us from what’s really going to happen, and soon: the tidal wave of small autonomously controlled drones delivering pizzas, reading our meters, checking for gas leaks and grading our holiday weekend barbecuing efforts (I imagine). We’re never going to see hundreds of flying Ubers dropping passengers off at the opera or the divorce lawyer’s office. The logistics just aren’t there. We’ll very likely, however and soon, be getting emergency supplies of replacement electric toothbrush tips and pool filters airlifted to our front porch. So how to deal with the coming horde of mini drones?
The answer is, no one really knows.
In a story in AvWeb Flash by Kate O’Connor, EAA president Jack Pelton addressed the coming of drones, specially discussing a petition by Amazon to be given special dispensation to avoid some onerous FAA regs in beginning delivery services.
The request puts Pelton and other aviation leaders in a tough spot. On one hand, small drones like this are coming, and they stand to be the forward guard of a new wave of aerial technologies that will benefit all of aviation, if not directly, then through the development of new technologies that human-flown airplanes will incorporate over time. And the question needs to be seriously considered too: How tightly do we regulate drones? Do we really need commercial air carrier-level regulations? Is it necessary or even appropriate for us to burden the makers and operators of 50-pound drones with the same level of oversight as we apply to a 1,000,000-pound Boeing 747 (and, yes, I did just look that up on Wikipedia). These two aircraft are functionally, operationally and structurally as different as can be. We should remember that.
What Amazon intends to do and what it’s asking the FAA for are both extraordinary. They plan to operate their drones under Part 135 charter regulations, which has never been done before with pilotless planes. So, by definition, the FAA will have to grant Amazon some exemptions in order for the rules to be applicable to Amazon’s business.
At the same time, Pelton makes an excellent point when he says that such drone operators shouldn’t be given any accommodations that will impact the safety or operability of the existing GA or commercial fleet. And he does a good job of being open to new technologies while emphatically voicing the need to keep our current operations safe.
In this case, the devil will be in every word and punctuation mark of the details of the deal the feds strike with Big Drone. It seems a balance that should possible to fairly strike, true. Other historical cases of regulators attempting to create framework for brand-new technologies have been fraught. Look no further than the implementation of the Light-Sport Aircraft category, which to this day doesn’t allow electric propulsion, not by intent but by omission. It’s not easy to predict the future, so we need to be careful in how we formulate new regulations, at once taking care to avoid unintended privileges that operators might abuse, while building in enough flexibility to accommodate advances and opportunities no one saw coming.