Amazon Prime Air and other companies may begin delivering packages by drone as soon as this summer, according to federal regulators and industry officials. Since late last year, the White House has started to put more pressure on the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to work with companies to make delivering packages by drone and other drone applications a reality.

At the FAA UAS Symposium last week, it became clear that drone deliveries may be here sooner than we think as federal officials promised drone proponents: “We’ll help you get there.”

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Limited drone deliveries may be here this summer

The US has been lagging behind other countries when it comes to supporting commercial drone applications to take off. Companies such as Google, Amazon, Zipline, and others have moved their testing operations to countries such as Australia, the UK, and Rwanda where the legal framework is far more lenient and facilitating.

Late last year, the White House launched the UAS Integration Pilot Program to speed up commercial drone applications in the US. So far 149 proponents have submitted applications and we expect the FAA to select at least 10 of them to move forward with starting in May.

According to the WSJ, Jay Merkle, a senior FAA air-traffic control official, said during a break at the FAA UAS Symposium in Baltimore last week, that some proponents such as Amazon “think they might be ready to operate this summer.”

Drone proponents, the FAA, state and federal law enforcement agencies will have to work together to overcome security concerns and legislative and regulatory restrictions. Amazon, Google, Boeing and GE recently announced that they are working on developing a private Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM) system with the aim of safely integrating unmanned aerial vehicles into the national airspace.

Gur Kimchi, vice president of Amazon’s drone delivery organization Prime Air said he was hopeful that approvals would be in place by 2019. During the conference, people asked Kimchi about possible locations and timelines for the drone deliveries and he kept replying with “ask me next year.”

“the FAA is open for business”

In an interview in Baltimore, the head of the FAA’s drone-integration department said that drone deliveries may be:

“a lot closer than many of the skeptics think. They’re getting ready for full-blown operations. We’re processing their applications. I would like to move as quickly as I can.”

During the FAA UAS Symposium, officials told drone proponents that “the FAA is open for business” and that the companies should submit their drone plans. As long as the essential safety standards are met, the FAA will work to provide the exemptions and waivers needed to overcome the rules from the manned aircraft world that were created long before drones appeared on the horizon. Mr. Merkle encouraged drone companies to submit their plans, saying that the FAA will help you get there.

Industry officials, such as Brendan Schulman from DJI said that drone proponents were “very much looking forward to new direction from the FAA.” Acting Administrator of the FAA said in a speech that their strategy shows “an attitude of regulatory humility.” He later added that policymakers “cannot make the mistake of thinking we have all the answers.”

DroneDJ’s take

Drones hold the potential to bring many benefits to people’s lives. For example, drones have recently been used to rescue swimming teenagers from being swept out to sea, find people who were lost or unconscious.

They have also helped with inspecting damages after hurricanes and restoring cellphone communications in disaster-struck areas. The unmanned aerial vehicles can provide a more efficient and greener solution to deliver small packages in both urban and remote areas.

However, noise, privacy and security concerns cannot be neglected and need to be resolved. The decades-old rules and regulations from the manned aviation world form a challenging legal framework as well.

In short, even though drones are technically capable to make deliveries, it is the large-scale implementation of unmanned aerial vehicles into the national airspace that forms the biggest challenge. It is good to learn from the FAA Symposium that federal authorities are pro-actively working with drone proponents and other involved parties to overcome these challenges. We will be watching future developments in this space closely.

What do you think about the growing number of drones in our world and the various ways in which companies envision using them? Does it worry or concern you or can you not wait for them to be deployed on a large scale? Let us know in the comments below.

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Photo: The FAA’s Earl Lawrence, X’s James Burgess and Amazon’s Gur Kimchi discuss drone package delivery. Courtesy of AUVSI.

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