For years, pro-drone activists – and yes, there are pro-drone activists – have worried that the Federal Aviation Administration, the government agency tasked with regulating things that fly, would harm their cause by imposing strict rules on who's allowed to fly drones, and where and how they're allowed to do it. Chief among those worriers has been Amazon, which wants to use small, lightweight drones to deliver packages to your doorstep. (A program it calls Prime Air.)
But Prime Air's days may be numbered, according to the Wall Street Journal, which obtained the FAA's draft rules for drones. The rules are stricter than some had expected. Drone operators would be required to have pilot's certifications that could take months or years to obtain. Flights would be limited to under 400 feet, and drones would have to remain in their operators' sight at all times. Perhaps more importantly, the FAA's draft rules treat all drones weighing under 55 pounds the same – meaning that the 2.8-pound DJI Phantom (seen above) would get the same restrictions as much heavier, more potentially dangerous aircraft.
None of this bodes well for Amazon. The company recently petitioned the FAA for exemption from the proposed rules, saying that "one day, seeing Amazon Prime Air will be as normal as seeing mail trucks on the road today, resulting in enormous benefits for consumers across the nation." In that petition, Amazon also issued a thinly-veiled threat to the FAA: let us fly drones commercially in the U.S., or we'll take Prime Air – along with the many, many R&D jobs it will create – to other countries with looser rules. (Making good on its threat, Amazon is now building a large drone-delivery lab in Cambridge, England.)
Amazon may be able to test drones in the U.K., but it really wants to fly them in America – where more than half of its sales are made. To do that, it will need to convince the FAA that it can operate the drones safely and responsibly, and that the benefits to consumers will outweigh the potential dangers.
Of the FAA's proposed rules, the one that would create the most headaches for Amazon is the line-of-sight requirement. The company had previously planned to use drones within a 10-mile radius of their base stations, and steer them to customers' doorsteps using both GPS technology and onboard cameras. (You can imagine an Amazon drone control tower filled with screens manned by operators, each one controlling the movements of hundreds of drones in the surrounding 10-mile radius.) But if they're required to keep drones within physical sight of their pilots, Amazon's ambitions will have to scale way, way back. They can't build enough base stations to keep every drone within sight of its pilot, especially in dense urban areas with lots of buildings blocking the line of sight.
Of course, the FAA's draft rules are just that – draft rules. There's no telling what will happen to them from now until they're officially implemented. And Amazon and other drone-hopeful companies will be spending months furiously lobbying for exemptions from, and changes to, the rules.
But it may be, in the end, that tighter drone regulations are Amazon's new sales-tax laws – a negative trend that, despite all its well-funded protestations, the company just has to roll over and accept. There are good reasons to allow commercial use of lightweight drones, and some of the FAA's objections to drone use are overstated. Still, not every rule can be bent – especially when that rule governs an object that has a non-zero chance of dropping out of the sky and hitting someone.