Within the last year, delivery by drones has become a reality. Twelve kilometers off the coast of Germany lies the island of Juist. It is there that DHL, a German based delivery company, has decided to provide the first unmanned drone delivery service. With a population of just 1,500-1,700 people, DHL expects little resistance and or complaints from residents about the presence of said drones. The drones will be delivering urgently needed items such as medical supplies via a device known as a parcelcopter, which is pictured above. While DHL and Germany are leading the way for unmanned drone deliveries, huge U.S companies like Google and Amazon are trying to get their own unmanned drone delivery systems approved in countries like the United States.
On December 1, 2013, Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos took to the TV show 60 Minutes to announce that the future for Amazon’s delivery system is in Amazon Prime Air. Like DHL, Amazon wants to use miniature UAVs, or unmanned aerial vehicles, to deliver their products almost instantaneously. The order has to be less than five pounds for it to qualify for Amazon Prime Air delivery and deliveries would likely be able to arrive within thirty minutes or less from the time the order was placed. But why has DHL launched their program while companies like Amazon and GOOGLE haven’t?
At least in the United States, the answer lies with the FAA. The FAA, or Federal Aviation Administration, is an agency of the department of transportation and is responsible for regulating and overseeing all aspects of civil aviation. In the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, Congress issued the FAA a deadline of September 30, 2015 to accomplish a “safe integration of civil unmanned aircraft systems into the national airspace system.” Due to congress establishing this deadline all U.S unmanned delivery, use of drones was suspended until the FAA came up with written regulations. In February of 2015, the FAA released the following regulations for commercial drone use:
- Drones must weigh less than 55 pounds.
- Drones may only operate during standard daylight hours and within visual sight.
- Drones must fly no higher than 500 feet and go no faster than 100 mph.
- Drones must be operated by a person at least 17 years or older that has passed an FAA knowledge test.
- Drones must be registered, but do not require an airworthiness certification.
While this is a good first step towards the implementation of commercial drones, many legal issues pertaining to the use of this new technology have yet to be resolved. Aside from property and privacy concerns, U.S. courts have yet to determine who would be liable in the event of an accident involving a drone. If a drone falls out of the sky and injures someone will it be considered an act of God precluding recovery, or can a person recover damages in a lawsuit? If recovery is obtainable, who would be liable: the delivery company, the manufacturer, the pilot, or maybe all three?
Some state courts have taken the initiave to address some of these issues as they pertain to private use of drones in anticipation of the arrival of official FAA regulations. As a result, many states possess different legal policies pertaining to drones. Some states have no legislation or rulings pertaining to a private citizen piloting a drone, while others such as The District of Columbia have made personal drone use illegal within their boundaries. Washington D.C. reached this particular result due to highly publicized security incident where a drone landed on the White House lawn.
It is safe to say that the use of drones for both private and commercial purposes will be an issue that will continue to perplex the United States government for years to come. For now, U.S. citizens can expect to wait a few days before their packages travel through the air directly to their doorsteps. However only time will tell how the FAA and the courts will adopt and regulate this exciting new technology.