FAA Approves Drones for Takeoff

Early in its life, Facebook’s mantra for its developers was “Move fast and break things”. That neatly summarizes much of the tech industry’s ethos to this day. It is both a feature and a bug, to borrow a Silicon Valley witticism.

That philosophy simply won’t work in the world of drone technology, where moving fast will actually break things and possibly people as well. FAA data shows that at any given point in the day there are 5,000 aircraft aloft in the US. Air traffic controllers manage 42,700 flights/day. In densely packed cities like New York, there are 27,000 people per square mile. In midtown Manhattan at rush hour, it can feel like that many on one city block.

At the same time, the benefits of self-guided drones are simply too large to ignore. Visit any major US city and it is clear humans have maxed out the two dimensions of cross-street and avenue. Look at a map of America and you’ll see wide expanses where highways and local roads necessary ignore the “Shortest distance between two points” maxim. New battery technology combined with advanced sensors and GPS makes drones a viable answer to many logistical challenges.

All this makes government a necessary partner for drone developers, and today the US FAA announced the first winners of its Unmanned Aircraft System Integration Pilot Program. The goal here is to “help the US Department of Transportation and the Federal Aviation Administration craft new enabling rules that allow more complex low-altitude operations…” The program is necessarily complex, since local and state regulators play a role in all this as well.

If you look at the FAA website (link below), most “Winners” are actually government entities, from the Choctaw Nation to the city of San Diego. Behind that, however, there are public companies at work. For example:

  • FedEx will use drones to deliver airplane service parts at the Memphis airport and at a nearby service facility.
  • Alphabet/Google’s Project Wing operation will deliver consumer packages in northern Virginia.
  • AT&T is part of the San Diego award, using its 4G and experimental 5G systems to track drones in flight.

There are also two notable no-shows on the awards list: Amazon and DJI. The first you know; the second is the world’s largest producer of consumer drones. It also happens to be a Chinese company.

Our takeaway: unlike many technologies, with global addressable markets and little government regulation, drones actively need government attention to fulfill their promise. The FAA’s move today is a good first step. Given government’s necessary involvement here, however, it may take several years before commercial drones are commonplace.

Sources:

FAA Announcement: https://www.faa.gov/uas/programs_partnerships/uas_integration_pilot_program/awardees/

Press reports with more information:

Bloomberg: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-05-09/drone-tests-from-deliveries-to-farming-unveiled-by-government

Reuters: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-drones-companies/alphabet-intel-fedex-att-among-drone-pilot-winners-idUSKBN1IA2WC

CNET: https://www.cnet.com/news/big-day-for-drones-as-us-endorses-tests-of-package-delivery-and-more/