back to article Amazon's delivery drones shot down by new FAA rules

The United States Federal Aviation Administration has released a new set of rules covering the operation of unmanned aerial vehicles, and appears to have shot down Amazon.com's delivery-by-drone dream. The draft regulations (PDF) say drone operations must be “Visual line-of-sight (VLOS) only” and that “unmanned aircraft must …

  1. Mr C

    common sense vs profit (1-0)

    So, basically they want to enforce some common sense rules like 1 guy per drone (as oppose to 1 guy in a c&c center monitoring a fleet of them), visual line of sight (as oppose to 'i can't see where it flew off to') and only allowing flying at day (as oppose to making a lot of noise at night)

    This is all very confusing, on the one hand common sense rules, on the other profit.

    I wonder which will win

    1. Eddy Ito Silver badge

      Re: common sense vs profit (1-0)

      I don't know while it seems like common sense I can see scenarios where VLOS would be quite limiting. In a search and rescue situation which may involve a large area of varying terrain where VLOS could be obstructed by numerous things the restriction could severely hamper the search. Likewise in a dangerous situation, such as a fire, where remaining with in visual range could be potentially hazardous and you need to know the extent of the blaze to provide the best response. Does a farmer/rancher with 500 acres really need to be in line of sight when overflying the crops/herd looking things that may need attention be it a broken fence or irrigation line? I tend to agree with the daytime operation but I don't see why a properly outfitted1 drone couldn't fly at night.

      I'm aware that the FAA would likely provide an exemption for use in the above situations for municipalities but there also needs to be some framework that allows the average person to experiment and learn without undue restrictions or expenses. Anything else is just a higher barrier to entry for individuals looking to make a business while giving the bigger players more leverage with which to work.

      1. What properly outfitted means is up for debate but given the availability of FLIR technology and radio tracking I can see where night flights may come in handy.

      1. LDS Silver badge

        Re: common sense vs profit (1-0)

        As long as drones don't have sensors to inspect, return and assess the situation around them - I can't see how they could be used safely beyond visual light of sight. If any camera they mount as a "small" field of view and is pointed to the area of interest, how can the drone or its controller assess the situation around the drone and take any action needed to ensure safety? What if the drone has a mechanical failure and needs to land in an emergency? What if the drone has an electronic failure and can't communicate or manage itself?

        But more sensors add weight and suck power. Probably that category of drones is larger than actual ones, and would need different rules.

        1. Eddy Ito Silver badge

          Re: common sense vs profit (1-0)

          But more sensors add weight and suck power. Probably that category of drones is larger than actual ones, and would need different rules.

          Sure, there are going to be different classes of drones just like everything else from autos to airplanes. There is the tiny palm sized quad where getting out of visual range isn't likely since the battery is so small up to converted full size helicopters or airplanes. The same set of rules aren't going to cover all of them. If they're really tiny they won't do any serious damage when they fall out of the sky and at the other end they are for all intents and purposes regular aircraft with additional restrictions and regulations. The question is the middle ground that bridges the gap and can do actual useful work but isn't a half ton gravity missile when something goes wrong. I would think that something simple like a redundant fail-operative parachute system may be adequate along with airspace restrictions.

          It isn't enough to say "what if?" it has to include a probability in order to judge the risk. What if all the oxygen molecules drift to the upper south east corner of the room leaving folks at the north west corner to suffocate? Sure, it sounds silly but it has a non-zero probability and it will happen if the room survives long enough and the sun hasn't blinked out. In the realm of mid-size I think there could be plenty of room and capacity for the needed safety features but we'll never really know what those are if ham-fisted rules make experimentation and discovery too expensive for anyone but the likes of Boeing because then the big players effectively set the rules by saying "we've tested it and a safe drone can't cost less than 20 million dollars because it needs X, Y and Z."

          1. LDS Silver badge

            Re: common sense vs profit (1-0)

            A failure of a drone is 'slightly' more probable of all oxygen getting out of your room. Especially when more and more drones fly, and they began to wear out with use.

            Also fixed (i.e. power lines, antennas, buildings, even tall trees) and mobile (birds, other drones, etc.) obstacles must be taken into account. Anything navigating blindly outside visual range could be dangerous.

            1. Eddy Ito Silver badge

              Re: common sense vs profit (1-0)

              A failure of a drone is 'slightly' more probable of all oxygen getting out of your room.

              A failure of a car is also 'slightly' more probable but that says nothing about the risk. 10 pound drone vs 3000 pound car. How fast is it going when it fails? Laden or unladen? African or European? Where is it when the failure occurs? It's absolutely true that if cars were invented today they would be banned in the US.

              Anything navigating blindly outside visual range could be dangerous.

              Ok, lots of things are dangerous like walking across the street or driving a car. Flying an 8 ounce drone anywhere probably isn't very dangerous, an 8 pound drone somewhat more so but as it grows so do it's potential capabilities and it's possible the danger can be mitigated. Blindly saying something could be dangerous doesn't say anything. The question is are we free to do anything that doesn't infringe upon the freedom of someone else or do we need a nanny to oversee our every move? Safety isn't something that can be controlled and a right to be safe isn't codified anywhere but the right to pursue happiness is.

        2. Vic

          Re: common sense vs profit (1-0)

          As long as drones don't have sensors to inspect, return and assess the situation around them - I can't see how they could be used safely beyond visual light of sight

          DHL's drone does just fine[1] .

          That's not in the USA, of course...

          Vic.

          [1] I had a better link last week - I'll try to find it again...

    2. Kimo

      Re: common sense vs profit (1-0)

      It rules out a lot of wildlife/livestock management applications. If you are in visual range of a herd, there's no need to send a drone to look for them...

      1. DougS Silver badge

        Re: common sense vs profit (1-0)

        Depends on the actual wording of what it says you can do on your own property where the drone doesn't have the ability to leave your property either due to range of the drone or the controller. The "I gotta search to find my livestock" is only a problem on the large ranches in the US. If you have a small ranch you can search it on horseback or ATV in a half hour.

        For wildlife management, this wouldn't apply since that's typically a noncommercial use of a drone.

        1. Kimo

          Re: common sense vs profit (1-0)

          there's still plenty of free range out west.

  2. TheresaJayne

    so how does this affect LOHAN?

    You have to have someone within unaided visual range of the plane.....

    1. imanidiot Silver badge

      I'm sure LOHAN will be perfectly visible at all times. They are getting an exception/waiver for a lot of rules anyway, I doubt this would form any barrier for LOHAN.

    2. Voland's right hand Silver badge

      A more interesting question is does a spacecraft (including a suborbital one) qualify as drone.

    3. LDS Silver badge

      There's the Playmonaut for that....

    4. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      RE: so how does this affect LOHAN?

      It just gives SPB yet another excuse for LOHAN not to fly. I hate to say it, but as time drags on - how many years now? - a LOHAN flight is just looking more and more like vapourware.

      1. imanidiot Silver badge

        Re: RE: so how does this affect LOHAN?

        It's been just under 3 years now. LOHAN was still mostly in the back of a napkin stages in 2012. Things like this take time.

  3. Ralph B

    Administrative Schizophrenia

    So self-driving cars are OK, but autonomous flying drones are not? How so? It can't have anything to do with Google spending 3x more on federal lobbying than Amazon, can it?

    1. LDS Silver badge

      Re: Administrative Schizophrenia

      Ask yourself why getting a driver license is far easier than getting a pilot one... a 3D space where you can't easily stop is a bit more complex to move within.

      1. Cynic_999 Silver badge

        Re: Administrative Schizophrenia

        No, it is far less difficult to navigate an aircraft than a car, it's just that most people are unfamiliar with airspace navigation and so it seems to be complex. In fact there are typically far more rules and complexities involved when navigating from home to work than there is in flying an aircraft from New York to London. In addition there is considerably less room for error on the road, because you have to be within a meter or so of your intended path, and there is a high probability that you will meet something that unexpectedly encroaches into your path. In a car you are typically within 10 meters of high speed opposite direction traffic most of the time. In the air you are rarely as close as a 1 mile to any other airborne vehicle, even when close to your departure or destination airport.

        1. This post has been deleted by its author

        2. LDS Silver badge

          Re: Administrative Schizophrenia

          Sure, most people are unfamiliar in following a 3D virtual 'road' indicated by needles only, at high speed and with no brakes and no way to stop, while other vehicles can come from below and above you also, and the air itself moves too.. We are much more familiar with physical 2D roads which don't move, lower speeds, and usually vehicles can come from the same plane only.

          Also, oceanic routes are among the trickiest to navigate, especially without a GPS or an inertial system. They are so long usually planes can't simply fly a fixed heading all the time, and being away from navaids most of the time, they required a fairly complex mix of dead reckoning and star navigation, while oceanic ATC ensures you don't hit other planes.

          Sure, it's simpler to design an autopilot for an airplane than for a car due to the 'simpler' environment- as long as strict rules and ATC maintain proper separation, no actual autopilot could work otherwise -, but for a human is far simpler to drive a car than navigate a plane (or even a boat), because we're not used to sense the magnetic field nor 'feel' altitude. We're used to use eyes to follow reference points and lines, feet on the ground.

        3. werdsmith Silver badge

          Re: Administrative Schizophrenia

          "No, it is far less difficult to navigate an aircraft than a car, it's just that most people are unfamiliar with airspace navigation and so it seems to be complex"

          Cool, so I'll have my Jeppesen plates ready for when I'm driving close to home, and get instructions from road traffic control, maybe they'll stack me in the hold a few miles from my house if the traffic is heavy. I'll intersect the localiser, and check my position at the outer and middle marker having picked up the glideslope. At about 500 feet from home I'll check to see if I can see my drive clearly and make a decision about whether I can continue, or go around the block for another try, maybe if the visibility is below minima I'll divert to somebody else's house and get a bus connection or an overnight stay in a hotel.

    2. big_D Silver badge

      Re: Administrative Schizophrenia

      Except the cars have to have an operator in the vehicle, who can take control in an emergency...

      1. JimmyPage Silver badge
        Stop

        Except the cars have to have an operator in the vehicle, who can take control in an emergency..

        Isn't there a saying about why bark when you have a dog ?

        Elsewhere on El Reg, readers were looking forward to autonomous cars getting them home after a bender. Staying sober in case your ride home malfunctions doesn't really make up for it.

        1. big_D Silver badge

          Re: Except the cars have to have an operator in the vehicle, who can take control in an emergency..

          The difference is what can the car do now and what will it be able to do in the future.

          At the moment the technology is still in the proving stage, so there has to be a driver.

          Once it is proven, then the laws will have to be revisited.

          There is nothing to say that when the technology has been proven in drones, that the laws here won't change as well.

        2. Ole Juul Silver badge

          Re: Except the cars have to have an operator in the vehicle, who can take control in an emergency..

          Surely you could also send your car out to pick something up. I don't see any reason for me to be in it if I'm not needed.

  4. Sealand
    Headmaster

    Drones by definition operate autonomously, so technically - if you need line of sight to fly them - they're just R/C 'copters.

    Drones (as defined above) are effectively banned for now.

    1. LDS Silver badge

      In some ways they are drones because you don't actually "pilot" them fully as you would do with an RC plane or helicopter - you tell them where to go and they comply taking care of the flight issues.

      Sure, fully automated drones are effectively banned with this rules - but I guess a complex and strict certification would be needed to allow them to fly over people - especially for obstacle avoidance and emergency procedures.

      1. The Mole

        As long as the fully automated drone has the capability for the user to override and take emergency control then it still fine - I very much doubt there are any drones which don't full into this category.

        Emergency control probably boils down to dynamic route replanning (ie telling it to stop and hover, or giving it a new destination/manually defined route to fly).

        1. Eponymous Cowherd

          Emergency control

          "As long as the fully automated drone has the capability for the user to override and take emergency control then it still fine - I very much doubt there are any drones which don't full into this category."

          The Parrot AR Drone 2.0 doesn't fall into that category. If you control it via MAVLink / QGroundControl instead of using Parrot's proprietary Wi-Fi protocol then it will happily continue flying along its waypoints after it has lost its control link.

          As fas as I know this is true of all UAV's which utilise MAVLink (e.g. Arducopter, etc).

          1. Eponymous Cowherd
            Terminator

            Re: Emergency control

            OK? Would the downvoting twatspanner care to explain how this post is inaccurate, as you can only be disputing its accuracy as my post is non-partisan with regard to whether delivery (or any other kind of drone) is a good/bad idea?

            1. werdsmith Silver badge

              Re: Emergency control

              Does anyone over the age of 12 years old actually care about the upvote/downvote?

    2. DropBear Silver badge
      Unhappy

      Well, this basically says "RC model aircraft continue to be legal, as for anything else, a big FUCK YOU to you lot..."

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Least of their worries

    As soon as one of these came crashing down and hit someone, the potential lawyer-storm would quickly put this idea to the grave.

    The numbers of "fly aways" reported by users is alarming. Now some of these are explained away by poor piloting, but a lot of em aint.

    I have no doubt the technology in these isnt "consumer" level but that isn't going to make it physics proof...

  6. Steve I
    Joke

    simple solution...

    Just have the operator follow the drone in a microlite aircraft.

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Never mind Physics

    I was picturing gun lovin' perp 'mericans taking aim, huh huh!

  8. Peter 26

    This seems like perfectly sensible legislation for the current times. When the cargo drones actually turn up then we can deal with that. I for one would like to think an operating license would be required that would require regular inspections and general oversight to ensure all safety precautions are being followed.

    1. Brenda McViking

      Yeah, let's legislate against making any sort of progress in this field. Make it impossible to do any research on the subject and smash the looms because some faceless bureaucrat thinks it's scary that humans might not be involved.

      This is exactly what type of legislation is completely damaging and counterproductive - a zero-tolerance appraoch to progress.

      Yes, legislate that you need an appropriate licence to prevent morons buying a $500 drone from wallmart and crashing into planes at the local airfield, yes, legislate that these things need to be of sufficient quality and yes, legislate that you get jailtime for flying them into powerlines, schools and football stadiums. But just ban them? What the hell is the point in that?

      Let me make it clear - with this legislation, cargo drones cannot possibly turn up to be treated properly by the law, because they're already banned.

      1. Captain DaFt

        "with this legislation, cargo drones cannot possibly turn up to be treated properly by the law, because they're already banned."

        In the USA. However. other countries with less restrictive legislation will get delivery drones, and in twenty years, The American Congress will be howling over how ever could the US with all its advantages have slipped so far behind the rest of the world in all fields of technology.

    2. Lysenko

      These rules are too wide ranging if they are as reported. One obvious drone application is in agriculture, either NIR mapping vegetation or tracking livestock - possibly by thermal imaging at night. This would obviously be over private land for the most part, though with ramblers and the like quite possible.

      To make that work, total autonomy is essential. Farmers aren't R/C plane enthusiasts, for the most part they won't even want to supervise the thing (and can't at night), let alone interfere with the piloting. Requiring a human to supervise (on a one to one basis no less) any robot generally defeats the entire purpose. I agree with the post above. This bans drones entirely. What it authorises are R/C helicopters with the autonomy of the cruise control in my car.

      1. The Mole

        Total autonomy is still allowed - as long as its possible to interrupt that autonomy in an emergency. The purpose of a robot is to perform tasks more efficiently, more reliably, and (particularly for flying drones) from a position that a human can not get into easily. None of these purposes are defeated by requiring a human to be present in the field to ensure that drone doesn't malfunction or crash into another person. I'm sure farmers would much prefer to do the job sat in a chair/on a quad bike supervising then actually having to do the manual labour themselves.

        Long term when we get more experience with the technology then the rules will undoubtedly get watered down and change, until that happens these seem a pretty good compromise.

        1. Brenda McViking

          The issue I have with it is NOT that the proposed legislation has some sensible rules, but that it proscribes them to limit what can be done with drones to what has presently been thought of (that drones are just an extension of RC vehicles), which is not the point of legislation, but sadly what always seems to happen. Legislation stating: Drones must be visable to aircraft is fine. Legislation stating: drones must carry a 1W red tungsten filament bulb flashing at 1/10s intervals every 5s proscribes a particular way of doing things which doesn't allow future innovation allowing say, the LED to be used in drone lighting.

          This type of legislation is exactly why you cannot use a segway in the UK. It's a powered vehicle, which doesn't fit any use-case the lawmakers foresaw, but is illegal to use on UK pavements as it is a powered vehicle, and you cannot use it on the road because it cannot be taxed or insured to legal requirements.

          Drones, and the direction in which they may head, will be heavily restricted by this legislation of one drone, one human operator, rather than "drones must be adequately monitored and the operator is responsible and criminally liable for the avoidance of other flying and static objects."

          For instance, drone swarms, which may well be extremely useful in say, search and rescue for disaster zones, avalanches etc, are now effectively banned. You can't possibly have a swarm of human operators each controlling the kill switch for each swarm drone individually maintaining visual line of sight and not operating during night hours, per the legislated requirements. Thus a potentially useful area of drone research is now shut, as legislation determines that it will never be allowed to work because that legislation is far too prescriptive. You will not now be able to investigate airbourne drone swarms for R&D purposes, full stop, as you'd never be able to meet the legislative requirements.

          This is what I have a problem with - I'd say the one licenced human operator within line of sight of one drone is perfectly sensible for current technologies - but NOT written that way in legislation. Legislation should get the intent of the society it represents across, and require certain measures to prove something is safe, but not state how that should happen. An extremely poor show by the FAA, in an industry that generally understands root-cause well and is less prone to knee-jerk banning of things just because they make headlines.

    3. Kimo

      That horse has left the barn...

      The FAA already shut down a drone beer delivery service last year in Wisconsin. They were making deliveries of local brew to ice fishing shacks.

    4. Mark 85 Silver badge

      You're quite right. If you look at the weight requirements they speak of, cargo drones, etc. are not ruled out. Only the "lightweights".

  9. Kaltern
    Go

    Alternative

    Google buys out Amazon, starts fleet of autonomous delivery vans complete with automated robotic delivery system.

    1. Eponymous Cowherd
  10. Graham Marsden
    Terminator

    So...

    ... how are we going to get the remotely piloted helicopters that Arnie flew in The 6th Day?

    1. TRT Silver badge

      Re: So...

      I got mine on DVD.

  11. DrXym Silver badge

    It was a stupid idea to begin with

    I doubt the drone has the range or endurance to fly very far so why not just send somebody out in a van on a delivery route? Same difference except of course it would be far cheaper for customers and there wouldn't be drones falling out of the sky.

    1. Cynic_999 Silver badge

      Re: It was a stupid idea to begin with

      When aircraft were first being developed they had a range of less than a mile, were unstable and highly prone to crashing. With an attitude such as is being expressed, they should have been banned to start with, and in any case it was not worth pursuing the idea of manned flight because you're far better off using a bicycle.

      1. DrXym Silver badge

        Re: It was a stupid idea to begin with

        Well that's a pretty lame analogy. I don't recall from history books about the Wright brothers testing their aircraft over populated urban centres.

        Secondly we're not talking of just one drone, or two or even 10. Potentially there could be hundreds or thousands of flights per day buzzing around at relatively low altitude. It is quite obvious and inevitable that they would be smashing into buildings, hitting birds, becoming entangled with phone / electric wires, hitting masts, getting tipped by wind / rain, getting shot down, getting hacked / jammed, operator error and suffering more mundane technical issues.

        I could see the benefit of unmanned drones distributing tonnes of cargo between centres over mostly unpopulated areas (or areas they could route around). Basically small jets with no pilot. But not smaller drones over urban centres.

  12. nanas

    Surely this is only one of many issues to resolve.

    I've yet to see any coherent solution to the following (if anyone can shed any light...)

    - How is a drone supposed to complete a delivery? It will need to land, but we all don't have gardens/driveways. Surely this will all but eliminate any city deliveries.

    - How does the customer sign for a delivery?

    - With (I presume) strict weight limits and flying distance/time, new warehouses will be required - the current ones are miles from anywhere.

    This is aside from any sort of legal/accident issues etc.

    1. Eponymous Cowherd

      Issues

      Not to mention the "Buy a book and get a free drone" factor.

      Drone? I ain't seen no drone.......

      1. M Gale

        Re: Issues

        Cameras. Radio.

        "Funny, the drone saw you."

        Plus I could see drones like this being an awesome B2B or office to office thing. Rooftop to rooftop, an inter-office delivery service that costs nothing but a low cost maintenance contract and the couple of pence to charge 'em each time.

        I suggested this during year 1 of the degree course, the "computing and society" module. The prof really didn't like the idea. Funny how here we are not 4 years later, seriously discussing drone delivery services, Google Balloons, all the stuff that was being discussed during that module and shot down (har, har) as "not feasible".

        I consider myself vindicated.

  13. wikkity

    must remain within VLOS of the operator

    Just have a couple people (1 driver, 1 pilot) in a van following it. You could even put extra parcels in the back of the van to save the drone having to fly home to pick up the next parcel. Also, if the addressee was out, one of the van occupants could drop a "we missed" you card in the letter box.

    1. DougS Silver badge

      Re: must remain within VLOS of the operator

      Why in the world would you send a drone if you're going to send a van anyway to follow it? You aren't saving any money, and in fact it is costing you money from the second guy in the van!

      I'll have to assume you were joking, and forgot to put the Joke Alert! or guy getting his coat icon up :)

  14. Anonymous Coward
    Black Helicopters

    This is not really a surprise

    The technology that will allow these very small drones to fly BLOS (Beyond Line of Sight) is still being developed, and the rules are still in the process of being defined. Surprisingly the UK CAA is in the forefront here: they are currently trying to define rules for drone BLOS operation, and there is an expectation that (once they have completed the process) all of the other aviation authorities will simply adopt them with little more than minor regional amendments.

  15. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    "No human operator, no flight, says US aviation regulator"

    Of course that wouldn't apply to non-civil gear, or above other countries' soil, say Pakistan...

    So Amazon, keep developing that thing and slap some camo paint on it.

    Getting me coat...

  16. DugEBug

    Dang - the FAA beat me to it!

    I wanted to shoot them down myself.

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