February 19, 2015

If you want to build a robot fleet, the FAA has some polite suggestions


"Guardians Of The Sky" is a better name. The one they have now sucks. (Image via Wikipedia)

“Guardians Of The Sky” is a better name. The one they have now sucks. (Image via Wikipedia)

The FAA has a lot on their plate. Every day they coordinate an impossible worldwide ballet of airborne hurtling rocket machines that are filled with precious cargo, like packages or cocaine or people. So it was no surprise that in true G-funk style, their recently unveiled regulations for commercial drones do just that: regulate.

The FAA’s new rules regarding “unmanned aerial systems” or “UAS”, address numerous parts of what I’d call the “drone debate” if this was really a debate and not just people wildly speculating over very little. In effect, they curtail drone piloting to a set of rather innocent-seeming concerns. Via Bloomberg, the FAA approves of drones for “photography, agriculture, law enforcement and search and rescue, and inspecting structures such as bridges and telecommunications towers”, and that is great, even if it means that Harrison Ford is out of a job.

Now, the commercial delivery applications for drones are part of that wild speculation, and have been for a few years. In advance of the FAA’s announcement the Wall Street Journal speculated that the FAA was set to bring down the hammer on American prosperity and progress by requiring wildly restrictive licensing requirements for drone pilots. This turns out not to be the case, as Gizmodo points out, and in fact the FAA’s pilot qualifications will be relatively basic.

The wrinkle in these new regulations, however, are two rules that would make it very difficult to use drones as an Official Delivery Force Of The Third Dimension. The first rule requires a “visual line of sight” between drone and operator to be maintained at all times, and the other bans the drone from being flown over anyone not directly involved in its operation.

So I must ask the same question I always ask, as I feverishly flip through the entire world’s news stories every day starting at 3:00 AM: what does this mean for AmazonIn the mediasphere, it means something, but in practical reality, it means very little.

I could get into the fact that the FAA is asking for public comments on the new rules, so that they can be refined. I could tell you that Clamp Enterprises Amazon’s proposed Prime Air program, in which drones would deliver packages (of a certain weight) on the day you order them (if you live in a narrow radius around certain distribution centers), would be scuttled by these regulations as they currently stand. Naturally, Amazon is already calling them unacceptable. Via Fortune:

“The FAA needs to begin and expeditiously complete the formal process to address the needs of our business, and ultimately our customers,” said Paul Misener, Amazon’s vice president for global policy, in a statement. “We are committed to realizing our vision for Prime Air and are prepared to deploy where we have the regulatory support we need.”

I could run with this, but I won’t, because Amazon Prime Air is a publicity stunt. It’s an effective one, but still a stunt. Amazon is mercilessly devoted to growth, speed, and vertical-integrationing the hell out of the populace, and the disruption of tired old two-dimensional delivery is right in their wheelhouse—in theory. The practical reality of drones, however, is where Amazon falls short, and not just because the FAA isn’t carrying their water.

First, there’s the security issue. Getting a fleet of airborne robots (that don’t belong to cops) approved by even a local government, let alone state and federal, is an impossibly tough sell considering we still can’t take certain amounts of shampoo on a commercial airline. Unmanned drones are easily robbed. All you need is a blanket and a hammer. The technology that would allow the drone operator to interact with and make an exchange with the deliveree is rudimentary at best, not to mention drones’ minimal range, power, and manueverability. Jeff Bezos is touting them as the new face of shipping when really they’re the new face of cool videos you share on Facebook, along with bird murder.

It’s much more efficient for Amazon to ship packages by piggybacking on existing couriers like a virus piggybacks on a host, employ bike messengers to work the mean streets of the country’s most expensive real estate, or have college students pick up their package in a storage locker like it’s a clue on the latest episode of Scandal. Drones require a public infrastructure and regulatory framework that doesn’t exist and will likely never exist in the way Amazon intends.

Another thing that drone delivery wouldn’t be is cheap, and therefore safe, and that would be a problem for Amazon. Their liability would be through the roof, and the new workforce needed to pilot drones would be working for a company that is notorious for wearing their employees down to nubs. Drone pilots need to be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. When an exhausted warehouse employee neglects to efficiently scan and box up the various batteries and soaps in any particular minute, then that goes into their file and they’re punished. Which is twisted and Gilliamesque, but when that happens, pounds of metal don’t fall from the sky onto a residential area.

Remember, this was a company that rather than pay a living wage, create a safe working environment, or any number of things that their fulfillment center workers would prefer to dying in an overheated hangar, bought a robot manufacturer so that there wouldn’t be as many humans to mistreat.

So does this mean that Amazon is going to start pressing their advantage overseas where the FAA can’t regulate them? Maybe (though likely not in the UK), but who cares? It wasn’t a coincidence that Jeff Bezos first announced Prime Air on Cyber Monday, and while they have to come out against the FAA to position themselves as pro-consumer and the FAA as a big time-wasting meanie, the FAA alone won’t ground commercial drones. Civil litigation, law enforcement, theft, and the pace of technology are just as effective.


Liam O'Brien is the Sales & Marketing Manager at Melville House, and a former bookseller.