Delivery by Drone Must Clear State Hurdles

 
The Prime Air unmanned aircraft project that Amazon is working on in its research and development labs aims to deliver packages in 30 minutes or less. States are vying for the right to test drone technology. (AP Photo/Amazon)

Not so fast, Jeff Bezos—before Amazon can deploy its fleet of delivery drones, the company will have to wait for the results of drone tests at six state-run sites, which the FAA will select later this month.

At least 24 states are competing to host these sites, which are expected to bring jobs and investment from a rapidly growing industry.  Congress has directed the FAA to safely integrate unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), or unarmed drones, into the national airspace by 2015. Until then, the FAA has said it will grant flight privileges to UAV operators on a case-by-case basis.

Bezos, the CEO of the Seattle-based e-commerce giant, said in an interview broadcast Sunday on CBS’s “60 Minutes” news program that Amazon hopes to use drones to make same-day deliveries within five years of FAA approval. “It will work, and it will happen, and it’s gonna be a lot of fun,” Bezos said.

Amazon’s plan is yet another example of how drones could transform everyday life. Manufacturers tout the machines’ ability to carry water to a wildfire, monitor storm systems, locate missing persons or even deliver pizza.

Governors are well aware of the technology’s job potential for engineers, programmers and pilots.  Already, Oklahoma’s Republican Gov. Mary Fallin has a cabinet-level secretary dedicated to attracting drone companies to the state. New Mexico, which has a long history of testing military aircraft, has already secured a site. In promotional materials, Utah boasts that it is “one of the few states with unified executive and legislative support for UAV testing.”

The Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), the trade association for drone manufacturers, estimates that integrating drones into the national airspace will generate at least 70,000 engineering, manufacturing and piloting jobs within the first three years of FAA approval.  

The states that win the test sites also will be charged with developing privacy policies for drones, to protect the public from surveillance by drones performing all sorts of tasks, including delivering packages. During this past legislative session, eight states put limits on how law enforcement officers can use drones, and set guidelines for how long data collected from a drone can be stored in a database.

Still, those concerns haven’t stopped the majority of states from moving ahead to attract drone businesses.  Even in Virginia, where tea partyers and civil libertarians worked together to pass a two-year moratorium on drone use by anyone other than the military, the economic temptation of aerospace jobs and an FAA test site convinced the legislature and the governor to all but gut the moratorium in a special session.

“Not only would future job prospects dim, but current businesses and those they employ would be at risk,” warned Peter Bale, chairman of the AUVSI, in a letter to Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Republican. “More than 50 companies that manufacture UAVs have a footprint in Virginia. A moratorium would create an unfriendly environment for these companies, which as a result might look to take their business, as well as jobs, elsewhere.”

In response, McDonnell added exemptions to the moratorium for researchers and companies to test drones, so long as they are not armed or used for surveillance. Virginia and New Jersey are teaming up to apply for a joint drone test site, competing against 22 other states vying for one of the spots.

Republican Gov. Paul LePage of Maine also refused to sign a bill limiting drone use. “This bill will harm any opportunity Maine has to create new jobs in the aerospace industry,” LePage wrote after vetoing a bill limiting law enforcement use of drones. “It is the wrong message to send if we want these jobs.” Instead, LePage directed the state Department of Public Safety to create guidelines for law enforcement use of drones.

A model drone policy from the Aerospace States Association, the Council of State Governments and the National Conference of State Legislatures urges states to require a warrant for drone surveillance of an individual; prohibit the re-use of video or photos collected by a drone for other investigations; and ban weapons from domestic drones.

 
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