Local governments have a chance to jump into the drone development business, by invitation from none other than the Trump administration. An order signed by president Trump gives the Federal Aviation Administration three months to create a program that will allow local, state and tribal governments to propose unmanned aircraft system (UAS) pilot projects, in partnership with private companies, to see what might and might not be feasible to write into FAA regulations in the future.
The “presidential memorandum to the secretary of transportation” directs the department – and the FAA in particular – to…
Solicit proposals from State, local, and tribal governments to test within their jurisdictions the integration of civil and public UAS operations into the [national air space] below 200 feet above ground level, or up to 400 feet above ground level if the Secretary determines that such an adjustment would be appropriate…
[And] enter into agreements with the selected governments to establish the terms of their involvement in UAS operations within their jurisdictions, including their support for Federal enforcement responsibilities; describe the proposed UAS operations to be conducted; and identify the entities that will conduct such operations, including, if applicable, the governments themselves.
Proposals will be screened with the goal of authorising programs in a wide variety of geographic, economic and technological circumstances, and using a diverse range of public-private partnership models. The memo calls out five policy objectives:
Promoting innovation and economic development.
Enhancing transportation safety.
Enhancing workplace safety.
Improving emergency response and search and rescue functions.
Using radio spectrum efficiently and competitively.
The marquee application is package delivery – Amazon and Google are getting a lot of buzz around that – but real world proposals are likely to be more, um, down to Earth. Agricultural technology applications for drones are rapidly growing, and rural communities interested in pursuing projects would have a couple of advantages: they usually can respond to opportunities faster than urban cities, and lower population density simplifies the technical and regulatory challenges.
For example, operators (or an observer) need to maintain visual line of sight with the drone, which can’t deliver cargo and can’t fly any higher than 500 feet or faster than 100 miles an hour. You can’t fly over “any person not involved in the operations”. Although still very restrictive, the rules aren’t as bad as feared – earlier rumors had the FAA bowing to lobbyists for pilots and requiring full on licensing and other commercial aviation red tape. That didn’t happen.
The rules aren’t final yet. The FAA is thinking about carving out an exception for very light drones, up to 2 kilograms, that might open the door for flights over people or even autonomous operation.
Amazon isn’t happy, saying it might move drone delivery research and development out of the U.S. To make a package delivery service work, the rules would have to allow cargo drop offs, autonomous flying out of the view of operators and flights pretty much anyway, whether or not people were around. That’s not on offer.
The FAA’s proposed rules aren’t particularly relevant to proposals to use unmanned aircraft as – take your pick – tall towers or low flying satellites for telecommunications purposes. But the draft does open the door to more experimentation, so it’s a step in the right direction.
There’s a huge difference between some Internet access, no matter how poor, and none at all. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is looking at drones as economically sustainable broadband infrastructure where conventional technology doesn’t cut it. In a white paper published on Internet.org, Zuckerberg frames the question…
Our research has shown that approximately 80–90% of the world’s population lives today in areas already covered by 2G or 3G networks. These environments are mostly urban or semi-urban, and the basic cell and fiber infrastructure has already been constructed here by mobile operators. For most people, the obstacles to getting online are primarily economic.
For the remaining 10–20%, the economic challenges also apply, but in this case they also explain why the basic network infrastructure has yet to be built out. The parts of the world without access to 2G or 3G signals are often some of the most remote places on Earth, where physical access to communities is difficult. Deploying the same infrastructure here that is already found in urban environments is uneconomical as well as impractical.
Satellites are one option, but the high cost of orbital bandwidth led Zuckerberg and the Facebook Connectivity Lab consider other options, balancing the constraints of atmospheric flight, solar power and the need to deliver sufficiently strong signals to people on the ground…
Drones operating at 65,000 feet are ideal. At this altitude, a drone can broadcast a powerful signal that covers a city-sized area of territory with a medium pop- ulation density. This is also close to the lowest altitude for unregulated airspace, and a layer in the atmosphere that has very stable weather conditions and low wind speeds. This means an aircraft can easily cruise and conserve power, while generating power through its solar panels during the day to store in its batteries for overnight use.
For what it’s worth, he’s right. I worked on a similar project more than 10 years ago with Aerovironment, still a leading unmanned aerial vehicle developer and manufacturer. We worked within the same constraints and reached essentially the same conclusions, but the technology – particularly solar cells and batteries – wasn’t ready yet. That was then, this is now. And that might be enough.
Amazon’s PR people deserve a hearty round of applause. They dropped the perfect Cyber Monday story this Sunday evening when Jeff Bezos teased plans to build a fleet of drone helicopters that will deliver five pound packages in half an hour.
But assuming it has some remote connection to reality, the real news is what it implies about Amazon’s roadmap for expansion. Those drones are not supersonic. Even with zero time to process and pick an order, a half hour service radius of 50 kilometers would probably be an overly optimistic guess – Bezos talked about a 10 mile range. To cover a metro area, you’d need several large, well stocked, centrally located distribution centers. Which Amazon can build whether or not it resorts to drones.
In other words, Amazon is pushing its bricks and mortar presence closer to its customers, creating a physical version of a content delivery network. It’s a way of moving big box retailing into communities that have so far resisted it. Walmart has to locate its stores in places that shoppers can easily reach. Amazon, on the other hand, can put a distribution center in an industrial area where it would attract little, if any, opposition.
Such a facility would be powered by broadband. Orders, inventory, stock picking and delivery would all be managed and controlled electronically, of course. To attract a 21st century retail logistics center, industrial areas need the raw materials of the Internet: dark fiber and access to Tier 1 network nodes. That’s why California cities like San Leandro and Benicia are putting a particular emphasis on lighting up brownfield industrial properties.
Google might not be far behind, by the way. There’s already speculation that it will tie its robotic development program to its driverless car project, creating a fully automated ground delivery system. Chances of either drones or robots showing up at your door and asking you to sign for a package any time soon are slim, but slim is a huge improvement over none at all.