Why America Needs to Get Smarter About Our Commercial Drone Policy

NEW YORK- From its new, Manhattan-based brick-and-mortar operations, Web giant Amazon aspires to use drones to deliver small packages to customers in 30 minutes or less. Relegated to sci-fi in the not-so-distant past, such a scenario is exciting for consumers—especially those regularly stuck in New York City traffic or trapped below ground in a stalled Subway train. It also holds promise for businesses relying on courier services, allowing them a more rapid and cheaper alternative to serve customers.

Yet Amazon’s goal is stymied by authorities at the Federal Aviation Administration, which bans commercial drone use (with very few exceptions), including test flights, as regulators scramble to catch up with the rest of the world in creating a legal framework for unmanned aircraft.

Amazon’s enterprise would be just the tip of the iceberg, according to estimates from industry experts with the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), who project that $13.6 billion in commercial activity, including more than 70,000 jobs, could be unleashed during the first three years of integrating commercial drones (also known as Unmanned Aircraft Systems or UAS) into in the National Airspace System (NAS).

Further extending projections between 2015 and 2025, AUVSI experts project more than $82.1 billion in commercial activity from UAS, including nearly 104,000 jobs, such as manufacturing jobs that pay well (~$40,000) and require technical B.A. degrees. They also project that tax revenue to states will total more than $482 million in the first 11 years following integration.

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Source: AUVSI Economic Report 2013

Warning of the economic setbacks from delaying action on drone policy, AUVSI says that for each year rules are delayed, the United States loses more than $10 billion in potential economic impact, translating to a loss of $27.6 million 
per day. And AUVSI argues, “states that create favorable regulatory and business environments for the industry and the technology will likely siphon jobs away from states that do not.”

American Enterprise Institute scholar Tom Donnelly, who studies drone policy, told Opportunity Lives that government curtailment of drones—whether through commercial drone bans or Defense Department cuts via sequestration—hurts American interests.

“I think the biggest danger in all this is in our haste to regulate things, we will both deprive ourselves of a stark military advantage that we have and fail to exploit it in a commercial way,” Donnelly said.

Amazone Drone Delivery

Amazon hopes to use automated drones to deliver customers their packages within 30 minutes of ordering.

In the wake of the Edward Snowden surveillance revelations and military drone use highlighted by Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, Donnelly acknowledged Americans are concerned about privacy, though he said on balance drones are a net benefit to Americans.

“To be brutally honest, I think that’s mostly scare tactic stuff,” he said. “If you look at the use of autonomous technology, conducting experiments with self-driving cars and all the rest, this technology is so pervasive and so efficient and will become things that people are increasingly comfortable with and used to, then the fear of a drone killing you in a cafe is way overblown.

“We’re coming to the fact that essentially every email we write is in a public space,” he continued. “We may have moments of backlash and so on, but the very inability to regulate this, I think, and also the ongoing proliferation of technology, will actually make it less frightening and more familiar.” 

While Amazon drones might become a visible, consumer-facing endeavor, they represent just a small fraction of current industry projections, which are dominated by agriculture (an estimated 90 percent of drone use through the next 10 years). Higher precision in crop monitoring can help farmers spray crops more efficiently with nutrients and herbicides. This saves money and is more environmentally-conscious than current practices. The second-biggest holding promise for drone use is public safety, where new tools can help police officers, firefighters volunteer and emergency medical services respond more effectively.

amazon drones 2

Source: AUVSI Economic Report 2013

Europe generally lags behind America in creating regulatory regimes hospitable to new technology, but in the case of drones Europe, as well as Japan, leads the way. Amazon recently wrote to the FAA and warned that without the ability to test outdoors in the United States soon, it “will have no choice but to divert even more of our [drone] research and development resources abroad.”

Marc Scribner, a fellow with the Competitive Enterprise Institute who has called on Congress to bring about a “drone revolution,” told Opportunity Lives that the Europeans generally have much better air navigation service providers compared to FAA. He noted that Europeans are already integrating lightweight (< 150kg) UASs because the European Union exempted them from EU-wide regulation, leaving this is up to member countries.

“The FAA is failing big time,” Scribner said. “The FAA is slow because of status-quo bias.”

“For each year rules are delayed, the United States loses more than $10
 billion in potential economic impact, translating to a loss of $27.6 million
 per day.”

Scribner has written about how a Department of Transportation Inspector General audit report published this summer “found that the FAA was so mired in its own bureaucracy that not only would it fail to meet the 2015 congressional deadline, but that ‘it is uncertain when and if full integration of UAS into the [National Airspace System] will occur.’”

A continued failure to create sensible drone policy will only hurt American competitiveness further, according to AEI’s Donnelly. 

“Policies that do too much to exclude unmanned systems of any kind will be fighting against the global tide of technology and commerce,” Donnelly said.

Carrie Sheffield is the Senior Writer at Opportunity Lives. You can follow her on Twitter @carriesheffield.