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The incredibly Washington reason drone delivery isn’t coming to D.C. anytime soon


The District of Columbia is infamous for some of the political issues that make it distinct from other areas of the country. Its residents only have a non-voting delegate in Congress, for example. And its crippled subway system is uniquely hobbled by the fact that it relies on money from Maryland and Virginia, not just funding from riders and D.C.'s government.

So it's no surprise to learn that not long from now, D.C. residents may be able to add drone delivery to their "left out on" list.

Many online shoppers are waiting eagerly for the day that they'll be able to order something on and have it dropped off, via drone, on their front stoop. But because of a set of no-fly zones protecting the nation's capital from terrorist attacks, D.C. residents — and some in neighboring suburbs, too — could easily find themselves among the last to get drone delivery service.

(Amazon chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

"The no-fly zone over D.C. is a tricky hurdle indeed, and I don’t see it changing anytime soon," said Lisa Ellman, a lawyer in Washington at Hogan Lovells who focuses on unmanned aircraft policy.

The ban on flights in and around Washington stems from a post-9/11 decision, one that was amended later by the Federal Aviation Administration to include unmanned as well as manned aircraft.

"The FAA instituted the Special Flight Rules Area rule for security reasons, and it still prohibits unmanned aircraft operations within 15 miles of Washington, D.C." without a specific exemption, the agency said.

Drones have been involved in a number of security incidents around the country. The flying devices have been identified buzzing around airports, power plants and even wildfires. And remember when a drone crashed on the White House lawn?

"Look, it is what it is. I mean, D.C. is a special place," said one tech industry official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the issue is politically sensitive.

The Forest Service wants YOU to keep your drone away from wildfires

The ability of unmanned aircraft to cause havoc, even unintentionally, makes a no-fly zone virtually a necessity in Washington. But what began as a security measure to defend the Mall, the Capitol and other soft targets will almost certainly end up creating an imbalance between D.C. and the rest of the country once drone delivery really takes off.

"We can't have that lack of parity," said Michael Drobac, a senior policy adviser for the law firm Akin Gump who works with a number of unmanned aircraft clients, such as the Small UAV Coalition.

Responsibility for changing the no-fly zone falls to the FAA, which can simply rule that the policy should be changed, said Drobac. Alternatively, we could see legislation in Congress to address the issue.

Either way, you can expect industry and consumers alike to pressure policymakers for change. With advances in geolocation and sense-and-avoid technology, regulators might someday be able to design smaller no-fly zones that target specific buildings or areas.

Until then, though, Washington-area residents will probably have to settle for slow-rolling, ground based robots like these.