Witnesses at the House Aviation Subcommittee hearing on drones delivered a clear message to lawmakers yesterday — speed up the UAV regulatory process or put American companies at risk. From Stanford University Professor Juan Alonso, a researcher at the Aerospace Development Lab, to William Goodman, General Counsel for AirMap, stakeholders testified that the nation’s failure to move more quickly on regulations and testing threatens to leave American businesses behind. “Other countries’ openness to experimentation has accelerated into regulatory action and standards-setting that threatens…American businesses…”wrote Goodman. “We have no choice but to work harder and faster to safely integrate drones into the U.S. national airspace.”
A similar admonishment came from Brian Wynne of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. In written testimony, Wynne repeated Goodman’s warning, stating “Technology is advancing at lightning speed, especially in the realm of UAS. The promise of UAS is not held back by innovation, imagination or technology, but by a lack of regulatory clarity.” Wynne also called for a “national imperative” that speeds up the UAV regulatory process and “creates greater capacity, fulfills consumer demand and facilitates the future of commerce.”
Dan Ellwell, Deputy Administrator of the FAA, replied to stakeholder remarks, stating that the FAA had already made great strides in addressing safety and regulatory concerns. “The progress we have made would have seemed unimaginable not long ago,” Ellwell said. At the same time, he acknowledged that there is much more work that needs to be done towards regulatory clarity.
First Deliveries by Amazon
And, in fact, other countries appear to be moving ahead with UAV technology while the U.S. is mired in debate. Amazon is currently testing drone deliveries in Cambridge, England, while still lobbying heavily for a speedier UAV regulatory process in the United States. And in Germany, a partnership between Mercedes-Benz and the California maker of autonomous drone logistics systems Matternet has hit a landmark 100 deliveries for the Swiss online retailer, siroop. That 10-day pilot project involved an integrated system using two Matternet II drones and two Mercedes-Benz Vito delivery vans with landing platforms on top. The drones were launched from a logistics hub, the Matternet Station, which controls the delivery process until the last mile. The system then guides the drone to a van, where it is unloaded and fitted with new batteries. The van completes the delivery to the client’s home.
Even the tiny country of Iceland seems to have figured drone delivery out, sub-optimal weather conditions and all. In August of this year, the world’s first autonomous drone delivery company began operations in Reykjavik in a joint venture between the country’s largest online retailer, AHA, and the Israeli drone developer Flytrex. One glitch: there is currently only one approved route through the city, so most items still arrive at their final destination in an automobile, or customers pick them up. But, according to Flytrex CEO Yariv Bash, door-to-door deliveries are not far away. “We’re working together with AHA and Icelandic authorities to start delivering to dozens of points in residential areas in Reykjavík. We hope to have that operational by the end of the year,” he said.
Obviously, logistics in the U.S. are a bit trickier than Iceland or England. With 323 million people and tens of thousands of airports, safely integrating autonomous unmanned aircraft into American airspace will be no mean feat. But now that the deadline for applications for the FAA’s UAS Integration Pilot Program has come and gone, it’s possible that the U.S.will begin testing some innovative solutions sometime next year.
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