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As the COVID-19 pandemic has compelled millions of Americans to stay home to curb the spread of the virus, online shopping has become more important than ever. In particular, those at highest risk have relied on delivery services to buy groceries, order meals, and shop for other essential items without entering a physical store and risking infection.
E-commerce has improved remarkably in the 25 years since Amazon sold its first book online. Now it has reached another milestone as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) granted Amazon approval to operate its fleet of Prime Air delivery drones, opening the doors to a major transformation in the ways businesses deliver products. Amazon began testing its drones in 2013 and submitted a petition for FAA approval in August 2019, stating it would make drone deliveries of packages weighing 5 pounds or less in areas with low population density as part of its goal to shorten delivery times to 30 minutes or less. Amazon hasn’t announced when it will begin making drone deliveries.
In order to “carry the property of another for compensation” by drone in the United States, companies must obtain Part 135 certification, which the FAA originally created for charter airlines and later adapted for drones. Amazon is the third company to obtain this certification for drone deliveries after Wing Aviation, an Alphabet subsidiary, and UPS obtained it last year, though so far neither company has widely deployed its delivery drones.
Delivery drones offer many benefits over traditional delivery methods. Compared to airplanes and delivery trucks, drones create far fewer emissions, especially if they use clean power to be recharged. They’re also likely to be safer, because unlike delivery trucks, they don’t operate on roads, where accidents with other vehicles and pedestrians are possible. Moreover, they ensure contactless delivery, critical during pandemics.
As more companies like Amazon gain FAA approval for their delivery drones, more consumers will reap the benefits of faster delivery times and contactless delivery. To speed up this process, the FAA should simplify the rules surrounding drone delivery. Part 135 of the Federal Aviation Rules is a more complex portion of the rules not designed primarily for drones, which needlessly complicates the certification process. The FAA should instead adapt Part 107, which is more appropriate for drone operators, to allow for commercial delivery beyond line of sight.
Amazon’s FAA approval for Prime Air delivery drones is a promising step toward the next big innovation in package delivery and a major step forward for e-commerce. Hopefully we’ll see more of these greenlights in the future, but in order to enable more businesses to provide drone delivery services, the FAA needs to streamline the process and update its rules to better reflect current technology.