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Drone Delivery: What New FAA Rules Mean for Amazon, UPS

Widespread commercial drone deliveries by the likes of Amazon and UPS may finally be getting closer to reality as the U.S. federal government attempts to establish more concrete policies for the often-hyped aerial technology.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has issued rules that will require drones to be equipped with remote identification technology, and will allow operators of small drones to fly over people and at night under certain conditions.

Previously, small drone use was limited to flights over people who were directly participating in the operation, under a covered structure or inside a stationary vehicle—unless operators had obtained a waiver from the FAA.

According to the FAA, there are currently over 1.7 million drone registrations and 203,000 FAA-certificated remote pilots. Routine drone deliveries to U.S. consumers are still likely a few years away, partly since the FAA still needs to issue separate rules permitting drones to fly regularly over populated areas.

“These final rules carefully address safety, security and privacy concerns while advancing opportunities for innovation and utilization of drone technology,” U.S. secretary of transportation Elaine Chao said in a statement.

In August, the FAA issued Amazon a “Part 135” air carrier certificate for using unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), which officially enabled the e-commerce giant to operate its delivery drone fleets as part of its Prime Air service. Amazon is still testing the service and hasn’t said when consumers will see drone-fulfilled deliveries. This was the third commercial Part 135 issuing of its kind, with the FAA previously issuing the certificates to Alphabet-owned Wing Aviation in Virginia and UPS Flight Forward in North Carolina.

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The first rule, called the “Remote ID” rule, is a significant step toward the full integration of drones into the national airspace system so that they can be identified by law enforcement officials and national security agencies. The technology would link any drones identified in the airspace with their operator, just as a license plate identifies a vehicle and its owner. The rule aims to mitigate risks associated with expanded drone operations, such as interference with other aircraft and people and property on the ground.

All drones that must be registered with the FAA will be required to have equipment that either broadcasts their identification, location and control station or operates only at specific FAA-recognized identification areas. No such areas yet exist—the FAA will be accepting applications for the new zones in 2022. The Remote ID rule was a requirement imposed by Congress at the urging of national security and law enforcement agencies.

The rule does not apply solely to brand-new drones. By 2023, it will be illegal to fly older and current drone models without their own broadcast system. Drone manufacturers will have 18 months to begin making drones with remote ID technology, and operators will have one year after that to start using drones with remote ID.

Equipping drones with remote ID technology builds on previous steps taken by the FAA and the drone industry to integrate operations safely into the national airspace system.

For example, while Part 107 of the federal aviation regulations currently prohibits covered drone operations over people and at night unless the operator obtains a waiver from the FAA, the new regulations increase the flexibility to conduct certain small UAS without obtaining waiver.

“The new rules make way for the further integration of drones into our airspace by addressing safety and security concerns,” said FAA administrator Steve Dickson. “They get us closer to the day when we will more routinely see drone operations such as the delivery of packages.”

The second rule, “Operations Over People and at Night,” requires that small drone operators have their remote pilot certificate and identification in their physical possession when operating at night, ready to present to authorities if needed. Additionally, drones used at night must include flashing lights that can be seen up to three miles away. To enhance safety protocols, drones operated cannot have rotating parts capable of cutting skin.

The rule features a number of different qualifications for compliance, including weighing less than 0.55 pounds to fly overhead, and expands the class of authorities who may request these forms from a remote pilot. The regulation replaces the requirement to complete a recurrent test every 24 months with the requirement to complete updated recurrent training that includes operating at night in identified subject areas.

Both rules will become effective 60 days after publication in the Federal Register in January 2021.

Drones have been discussed in retail circles for years now as future delivery assistants, but despite predictions of their growth, the technology always seem to be more of a pipe dream due to the regulations in place. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos said in 2013 that drone-delivered packages would arrive at the doors of customers in five years, but 2018 came and went without anything beyond a test getting off the ground.

Both Amazon and Walmart have gone back and forth on drone testing, with the latter debuting a drone delivery pilot of its own in Fayetteville, N.C., in September. Unlike Amazon, Walmart has yet to procured FAA approval to fly any of its drones.

At least through 2019, Walmart’s drone experimentation outpaced Amazon. International accounting firm BDO found that from July 2018 to June 2019, Walmart filed 97 drone patents with the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) compared to the 54 drone-related designs filed by Amazon in the same time frame.