On March 28, 1931, a small subsidiary of Boeing, United Airlines, announced that it completed the first transcontinental passenger flight in 27 hours. This ushered in the golden age of commercial American aviation, which lasted over 40 years. Autonomous aviation was birthed in 1849 by an Austrian attack on Italy with unmanned, explosive-ladened balloons. Today’s drones are born from the past 167 years of global warfare, but their civilian applications are the product of good ole’ American ingenuity. Well, that was true until this past June…
Two weeks ago, a Chinese e-commerce company, JD.com, successfully completed the first drone delivery to consumers in the rural province of Jiangsu. This unmanned aviation feat was supposed to be achieved by Amazon or Google, who have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on drone research. Now at a fraction of the cost of their American counterparts, with little regulation in their way, China’s largest online retailer is quietly and autonomously delivering goods over 10 kilometers. Sputnik 1 has launched!
“With the help of drones, rural shoppers can enjoy the efficiency and convenience of online shopping just like those in mega-cities in China. And for us, using drones can significantly reduce delivery cost,” said Xiao Jun, of JD.com’s X Lab.
JD.com has solved the “last-mile” problem by employing drones to deliver goods to rural distribution centers, where the packages are later picked up by village deliverymen. The deliverymen then pass the goods on to JD.com’s shoppers. Xiao stated that to ensure the safety of drone delivery, unmanned craft only fly on carefully designed fixed routes.
One might claim that China is the wild west of regulation and there is no governing body, like the FAA, protecting its citizens from crashing quadrocopters. However, JD.com did have to file for a 1-year license to fly drones in Jiangsu, and now after successfully showing “the possible” it is applying for additional licenses to fly drones in other provinces. This common-sense approach by regulators gives China a wing-up on drone delivery.
It was not too long ago when Jeff Bezos first revealed his plans for drone delivery on 60 Minutes in December, 2013. According to Bezos then, Amazon Prime Air would use multirotor Miniature Unmanned Air Vehicle technology to autonomously fly individual packages to customers’ doorsteps within 30 minutes of ordering. To qualify for drone delivery the order must be less than 5 pounds, which accounts for 86 percent of all orders. However, Bezos did not expect that the FAA would be such an obstacle.
While the FAA loosened some commercial regulations this past month, autonomous package delivery like the one JD.com completed is still far off in the United States. In fact, even drone testing has been outsourced outside our boarders. After the FAA refused to approve Amazon’s application to test drones in a rural area outside Seattle in 2014, the company relocated its R&D to Canada, calling its test facility, “Amazon’s Canadian airstrip-in-exile.” Google is flying drones in Australia and claims that it will be ready for autonomous deliveries by 2017, if US regulators allow it.
In 2012, Congress legalized hobbyists’ use of drones, provided it doesn’t endanger “the safety of the national airspace.” Last week’s big news from the FAA is that it will finally decriminalize commercial uses of drones. The new FAA rules could have been enacted a decade ago, when the industry first asked permission from Washington. Instead, they dragged their feet and still banned many activities, which are now being piloted in Asia and Europe (see DHL example below).
The FAA‘s new regulations for small drones are just the first step to integrate commercial drones into the America’s airspace. The Small Unmanned Aircraft Rule (Part 107) was finalized on June 21 and comes into effect Aug. 29 2016. Here are some highlights:
- The rule limits the unmanned aircraft weighing less than 55 pounds to daylight or civil twilight flight, provided appropriate anti-collision lighting is used.
- The drone must stay within the remote pilot or operator’s visual line-of-sight at a maximum altitude of 400 feet. If the drone is higher than 400 feet, it must remain within 400 feet of a structure.
- The rule also requires that an individual operating a small UAS must either hold a remote pilot airman certificate with a small UAS rating or be under the direct supervision of someone who holds the certificate (instead of previously only permitting licensed airplane pilots).
The response to the FAA’s update has been mostly positive. The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), called it “a critical milestone” and victory for American innovators. “It establishes a clear regulatory framework and helps to reduce many barriers to civil and commercial operations, allowing anyone who follows the rules to fly in the national airspace,” said AUVSI CEO Brian Wynne. “Accelerating civil and commercial UAS operations will not only help businesses harness tremendous potential of UAS, it will also help unlock the economic impact and job creation potential of the technology.” Mr. Wynne referred to a 2013 report by the AUVSI, which estimated that the expansion of UAS technology will create more than 100,000 jobs and have an economic impact of around $82 billion in the first decade following integration.
Chinese drone maker DJI also welcomed the new regulations. “This is a watershed moment in how advanced technology can improve lives, as the Small UAS Rule allows companies, farmers, researchers and rescue services alike to explore how drones can let them do more at a lower cost and a lower risk,” said Brendan Schulman, DJI’s vice president of policy and legal affairs, in a statement released last week. Shenzhen-based DJI represents close to 75 percent of drone sales worldwide.
DJI notes that the new regulations replace the current FAA scheme that requires commercial drone operators to spend months waiting for an FAA exemption and to employ a pilot with a manned aircraft license from the FAA, stating “those high barriers to entry have prevented many companies from exploring the benefits of drones in their industry, and have been a source of frustration for business owners for years.”
However, businesses will only be able to reap the maximum benefits of drones when they can be flown autonomously—today’s “visual line-of-sight” is still a big hindrance. China’s JD.com and Germany’s DHL illustrate how many other successful countries have adopted more common-sense regulations. As reported previously on this blog, autonomous drones are routinely used outside the USA for agriculture, mining, construction, real estate, search & rescue, and inspections.
Of course, regulation is not the only roadblock to autonomous flight; today’s battery life of 20-40 minutes limits the success of missions. A host of new “drone-in-a-box” companies hope to deploy recharging stations around customer installations. Already this past month, I have met with four startups raising capital in this space, as I am also an investor in SkyCatch, which is a senior member of this elite group. The newest drone company to raise money is Airobotics of Israel, securing $28.5 million in funding. According to their press release, “taking the drone pilot and operator out of the equation, Airobotics removes the most expensive and hard-to-find component of industrial drone operations.”
Clearly, the FAA would not be a fan of their ability to autonomously “control and manage missions with one click.” While the rest of world is rapidly embracing drone technologies, our snail’s pace is beyond frustrating for some American aviation fans. To counter this, drone companies are following the timeless adage, “if you can’t beat them, join then.” As an example, AirMap announced this week the appointment of the former chairman and chief executive officer of Alaska Airlines, William S. Ayer, to their Board.
According to AirMap’s press release, their intentions are very clear. “Bill chaired the FAA’s NextGen Advisory Committee, where he helped refocus the agency’s technology investments to create significant value… We’re excited to welcome Bill to AirMap, where he will help us chart the course for the next frontier of aviation technology—drones.”
America, let’s make Wilbur and Orville proud!
Image credit: CC by Peter Linehan