Delivery Drones Are Arriving

Jamal Aziz

Associate Editor

Loyola University Chicago School of Law, JD 2023

Using a machine to replace human workers is a practice that continues to grow in the electronic age. The logic of drone delivery is to provide a sustainable option for the last-minute shopper or for the caffeinato that wants to order coffee online and receive it at their doorstep within minutes. For many years, drone deliveries have just been mere speculation based on unreliable technology utilized in the drones. However, it seems that technology has advanced once again. Drone companies have recently been cleared to expand their operations across the United States, in cities and rural areas as the technology becomes more reliable and faster. But how soon should we be able to order our daily necessities and luxurious items straight to our doorstep via drone? That all depends on federal regulation.

What is drone delivery? 

Drone adoption is multiplying among both consumers and companies, and the retail industry is leading the way in that adoption. Drones could serve different purposes for retailers, but drone delivery is the most well-known and readily apparent. Drone delivery services show enough potential that Amazon, Alphabet, and other tech giants are hailing it as the future of e-commerce fulfillment. As a result, many major retail and logistics companies worldwide are testing drone delivery services and drone delivery systems to solve the problem of getting their products to consumers faster.

Advocates for drone delivery

Advocates for drone delivery say the technology could reduce emissions, the cost per trip, and traffic on America’s roads while making the deliveries faster and more efficient, which is starting to become the new norm in the race toward e-commerce instant gratification. However, U.S. regulators worry about what could go wrong if the entire sky is filled with drones. Many risks are involved with transforming logistical transactions to drone usage, such as drone crash-landing or colliding with passenger aircraft. These potential risks showcase the biggest obstacle to broader adoption of drone delivery, which is the regulatory obligations from federal regulators. However, no drone delivery company in America is currently yet fully certified to fly everywhere without a human controlling or at least monitoring the aircraft. The Federal Aviation Administration says it is developing regulations that would allow it to issue such authorization safely.

Advanced air-traffic control and consequences

For these drone delivery businesses to scale up, they will need permission to operate their drones entirely autonomously, with little or no human oversight. For example, Amazon and Wing, a subsidiary of Alphabet Inc, have developed their own software systems for drones to autonomously plan flight routes, avoid collisions, and steer clear of areas around airports and tall buildings.

For the FAA to create standards for such autonomous flight operation systems, they must first be developed by a consortium of drone companies and traditional aerospace firms and then tested in the real world. The time-consuming nature of this approach to making drone delivery a reality is why implementation has taken so long. Another challenge to making drone delivery work is that the drones must meet the same FAA safety standards as passenger aircraft. Finally, companies must overcome hurdles inherent to operating an aerial-logistics service on a mass scale, including inventory and fulfillment, user interfaces, and fleet management, while obtaining cost-efficient pricing.

Another challenge that drone deliveries may face is based on the regulation of individual states. For example, some companies may not be able to make drone deliveries because lawmakers have not approved companies using devices to take products to the buyer. While the part of the supply chain may be authorized for drone delivery, the entire route may not. Other legal issues that may arise for the company involved in delivering products via drone include getting permits in some areas and licenses in others. The former would allow drone operators to fly with specific restrictions from the state, while the latter allows drone overflight without any restrictions. While challenges remain, companies seem to be encouraged by positive feedback from the expanded testing and the FAA’s evolving regulation. The more flights that companies are allowed to make, the more chances they have to demonstrate that they can successfully make deliveries without incident, and the more trust there is with regulators.