Amazon’s drones are ‘all fun and games until little Sally loses a finger’

December 2, 2013

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos showed CBS's Charlie Rose a prototype drone, termed an "octocopter," designed for picking up packages at Amazon fulfillment centers and dropping them off at customer residences. That's a cool concept. But like the various beer and burrito delivering drones of the past, some experts say it's nothing more than a gimmick at this point due to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) process for approving civilian drones in the national airspace.

Matt Waite, a professor at the University of Nebraska and founder of their Drone Journalism Lab, is skeptical of Bezos's plan, saying he "does not really comprehend what the FAA says they might allow in 2015, and it also really underestimates how slow the FAA has been going with this." Waite has had his own run-ins with the FAA, who essentially shut down the Drone Journalism Lab's ability to fly outdoors.

"What the FAA has said is that in 2014 they are going to put out a notice of proposed rule-making; the intent behind that is to establish rules for small unmanned aerial systems." That means drones up to 55 pounds, Waite said. "The rules will definitely cover Amazon Prime Air, but the FAA has already said in their road map there are going  significant restrictions on where and when and how those things can fly."

But perhaps more importantly for Amazon Prime Air, Waite said, are the parts of the road map which make clear that autonomous drones aren't in the cards any time soon. Bezos said Amazon Prime Air drones would be "autonomous," using GPS coordinates to navigate. But according to Waite, the FAA road map says "there will have to be a pilot in command of the device at all times, which pretty much blows Bezos's dream of autonomous drones carrying packages out of the water." Waite believes autonomous operations are "way down the road," with a best guess of 2020 or 2024 — later than the  timeline laid out by Bezos of as little as five years.

Even others who are more optimistic about Bezos's plan note this is a significant hurdle. Ryan Calo, a University of Washington law professor, told my colleague Timothy B. Lee yesterday that he thinks Amazon Air is feasible, but "it's likely that a person would have to be in the loop initially" to pilot the devices.

Autonomous operations raise a lot of safety questions for the FAA, especially in highly populated areas, Waite said: "You're talking about eight spinning blades that you are now, by design, putting very near to people." Proposing flying those drones automatically through cities or above crowded public events is a safety hazard that the FAA is not going to take lightly, said Waite, adding that "it's all fun and games until little Sally loses a finger."

And because it needs to consider the long-term implications for national air space, he expects the FAA to be working on a much more extended time frame than Bezos realizes. To illustrate his point, he noted just how long it took for the agency to approve limited electronic devices on airplanes.

But while Amazon was able to lobby effectively on that issue, Waite doesn't think they will have the same level of sway on drones — even after such a splashy move to get attention in the space. "There are defense contractors and major agricultural companies that are jumping up and down and screaming on this stuff and the FAA is not moving," he said, adding, "I just don't think in comparison to the defense industrial complex and big agriculture, Amazon is much of a player."

Disclosure: Bezos owns The Washington Post.

Andrea Peterson covers technology policy for The Washington Post, with an emphasis on cybersecurity, consumer privacy, transparency, surveillance and open government.
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Andrea Peterson · December 2, 2013