Time to deliver unmanned civil airspace

This first appeared as a Comment in the 10 December issue of Flight International

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos made big headlines last week by revealing that his online retailing empire is experimenting with the delivery of packages by small unmanned aircraft. It may be easy to think up reasons why it won’t work, but given Amazon’s ­success, it would be unwise to dismiss Bezos and his “delivery drones” as a technology geek’s daydream.
Except – the force even Jeff Bezos can’t defeat is ­bureaucracy. Unmanned flights in US civil airspace aren’t going to happen until the Federal Aviation ­Administration decides they are safely compatible with manned aircraft. That is as it should be, but its new 74-page “roadmap” to UAS integration may turn out to be a series of roadblocks. Hopefully the FAA is institutionally determined to find solutions rather than obstacles, but indications so far are not encouraging.
Amazon book deliveries are headline-grabbing but would be a trivial use of UAS. Search and rescue, emergency response, infrastructure inspection and public safety surveillance could probably all be done more safely, more comprehensively and cheaper by small UAS than by manned aircraft. And, such missions can be achieved by flying no higher than a few hundred feet, so minimal regulation should be adequate.
Unmanned aircraft have the potential to do great good for civil society, and to be good business. The FAA needs see them as opportunities, not problems.


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