Good news for both lovers of tech innovation and pandemic social distancing: Drone deliveries are set to expand in the United States.
When the coronavirus pandemic came to America in March and April, many jurisdictions issued broad orders to shelter in place. Home delivery services were hit hard by an explosion in demand, and they lacked the manpower to respond immediately. Stores and delivery services such as Instacart went on hiring sprees to staff up; in some areas, it was extremely hard if not impossible to get goods delivered.
You know what might have made things just a bit easier? Drone deliveries. It has taken years for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to allow the use of drones for commercial delivery services. We've gone over the course of a decade from a complete ban to extremely slow, heavily regulated, and extremely restrictive initial testing.
Amazon and Google have both been slowly working on drone delivery services, as have some smaller companies. And today, the FAA finally gave Amazon approval for its Prime Air drone delivery fleet.
The FAA did this, Bloomberg reports, by classifying Amazon as an "air carrier" and putting it under the scope of some relatively recent regulations intended to facilitate drone deliveries. The extremely restrictive private drone rules the FAA first put into place required that drones remain in sight of the operator at all times. That simply won't work for drone deliveries. So last year the agency introduced a special certification process that would allow approved pilots to operate drones for much longer distances specifically for deliveries. Wing Aviation, a subsidiary of Google, got some of the first certifications and started a pilot program to deliver food and pharmaceuticals in Virginia.
Today's announcement means Amazon will be able to join Google in drone deliveries. The company isn't ready to start sending out delivery drones immediately and it has declined to state where such deliveries will begin, but last year it revealed its fleet can carry packages of up to five pounds and can deliver in a 15-mile range in less than 30 minutes.
The FAA also recently granted Zipline a temporary waiver letting the company deliver medical supplies in North Carolina. Zipline had been operating for some time in Africa, but the United States continues to lag behind both developed and undeveloped nations in giving drone companies the freedom to test.
Amazon still faces several technical and regulatory hurdles, but it's great that the government is giving it this new room to maneuver. Too bad it took the feds this long to allow it, especially as a pandemic makes drone deliveries not just a futuristic innovation but something we could really use as soon as possible.