Amazon is going on the offensive as it seeks federal approval to test its planned Prime Air drone delivery system.
You are not likely to get a Prime Air drop on your porch anytime this year, or even next, but the online retailer, which announced plans for drone delivery last December on 60 Minutes, is making moves to spur development.
Amazon recently banded together with several makers of small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to create a coalition to speed federal action. And the e-tailer is also buttressing its lobbying efforts on Capitol Hill.
“Amazon Prime Air is participating in several groups … that share Congress’ goal of getting small UAVs flying commercially in the United States safely and soon,” said Paul Misener, the company’s vice president of global public policy.
Such efforts are needed because the advance of commercial drones covers a swath of federal agencies including the Federal Aviation Administration, which governs airspace, and the Federal Communications Commission, with oversight of communications frequencies drones would use. The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy also has rules in the works regarding privacy.
“This is uncharted territory,” says Chris Anderson, co-founder of drone maker 3D Robotics. His firm joined Amazon, DJI Innovations and Parrot in founding the coalition. The group aims to represent commercial uses of drones, establish a code of conduct and educate the public about benefits of the technology, he says.
Amazon’s interest “lets people realize how big it can be,” Anderson says. “They have a well-established presence in Washington and they were able to kick-start the mechanics of this coalition so we could quickly join and get moving.”
Drones are coming. The FAA has estimated that as many as 7,500 small, commercial drones may be in use in the U.S. by 2018, assuming regulations are in place. Globally, drone spending is expected to increase from $6.4 billion this year to $11.5 billion annually a decade from now, as projected by aerospace and defense industry research firm the Teal Group.
Both Amazon and the new coalition have retained Washington, D.C., law firm Akin Gump to assist in lobbying efforts. Already, Amazon is among nearly two dozen other companies that have sought exemptions from the FAA to begin tests with drones that weigh less than 55 pounds and fly below 400 feet.
In its filing to the FAA, Amazon said that so far it has only been able to test its drones inside its Seattle R&D lab or in other countries. Its goal is to get packages to customers in 30 minutes or less via the rotor-powered flying machines. “One day, seeing Amazon Prime Air will be as normal as seeing mail trucks,” wrote Amazon’s v Misener in the filing.
The FAA is determining the best way to respond to Amazon’s petition, said FAA spokesman Les Dorr.
Drone potential goes far beyond package delivery into such things as providing wireless broadband Internet in the Third World and monitoring areas where endangered species are hunted.
“A number of companies are looking at getting into philanthropic purposes,” says Michael Drobac, one of the lobbyists at Akin Gump working on the issues. “They’re also looking at recreational uses, mapping and aerial photography — the possibilities are limitless.”
Regulatory support for testing and deployment will help businesses harness the potential and help unlock the job-creation potential of the technology, said Ben Gielow, general counsel for the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, a non-profit technology advocacy group.
Amazon has hired Gielow, who will leave the Arlington, Va.-based association next month to join Amazon’s Prime Air public policy group.
Congress has charged the FAA with developing rules to test and integrate drones into the airspace. But a report that Transportation Department Inspector General Calvin Scovel delivered to Congress in February said the FAA will unlikely meet a September 2015 deadline set by Congress.
Companies need a “safe sandbox” to begin testing applications, Anderson says.
Eventually, drones could be a boon to law enforcement and public safety, helping assess crime situations and natural disasters such as fires, Akin Gump’s Drobac said.
And, yes, drones will help with the more mundane functions. “I envision a world where I walk outside and one drone delivers diapers for my children and another shows up with my pizza,” he said. “I have a vision of the world that is very good.”