Drone delivery should be taking off, but the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) continued use of one-off waivers for operating delivery drones, instead of comprehensive regulations, have grounded delivery drone ambitions across the United States. The FAA requires operators to certify drone pilots and package delivery drones under existing Part 135 Air Carrier and Operator Certification, a certification used for private jet pilots and operations, with small modifications for drone use. Drone operators can then seek individual waivers and exemptions to address drone-specific challenges, such as operating the drone out of the line of sight of the operator, which does not apply to a manned aircraft. The practice greatly reduces consumer access to drone delivery and creates an unfavorable atmosphere for new innovation. To correct this, the FAA should work with the industry to create standardized delivery drone requirements and create a new certification for delivery drones.
Drone delivery is a quick and efficient way to complete customer delivery. Since last-mile delivery, or delivery to the customer from the warehouse or shipping facility, is the most expensive and time-consuming segment of the consumer shipping process, drone delivery can improve delivery times, reduce strain on the postal service, and alleviate frustrations with delivery wait times and shipping.
Federal and state laws dictate how and where drones can operate. State policymakers have introduced specific laws to support and regulate local drone use, such as prohibiting drones in designated areas or creating drone task forces to dictate the local operation and regulation of drones. FAA standards prohibit drone operations within 5 miles of airports and require drone operations to occur within the view of a human operator. The FAA offers specialized Part 135 certifications to certify package delivery drones like commercial, non-scheduled air carriers, similar to private aircrafts. Part 135 certification comes with specific operating limitations, but operations can be expanded through FAA exemptions and waivers. Part 107 certification, which is more flexible, is only available for very small-sized drones that do not cross state lines, and is not applicable to many current delivery drones.
In 2019, the FAA certified UPS and Wing, an Alphabet-owned drone startup, to begin drone delivery operations under Part 135 certification. Since then, the FAA has certified other retail companies, including Amazon and Walmart, with the same designation. Since certification, Wing has completed more than 200,000 deliveries globally, though only operates in a small number of cities in the United States. Walmart, which works with multiple drone-delivery startups, completed around 6,000 U.S. deliveries in 2022. In contrast, since launching a drone delivery in late 2022 in Lockeford, California, and College Station, Texas, Amazon has reportedly completed fewer than twenty drone deliveries.
The difference in the delivery rollout is because the FAA creates unique rules for drone delivery usage, known as exemptions, for each operator. The exemption issued to Amazon, for example, prohibits flying drones over roads or people without explicit, case-by-case FAA consent, due to FAA concerns about safety. In contrast, exemptions issued to other drone delivery companies permit “overfly [of] roadways in a transitory manner.” Wing additionally received a waiver that allows the drones to operate outside of a human operator’s sight line.
The FAA is interested in the unique challenges stemming from drones. The agency launched the Unmanned Aircraft System Integration Pilot Program (IPP) in 2017 to explore the impact and benefits of drones in the national airspace system, and the subsequent UAS BEYOND in 2020 to explore challenges to drone integration. However, the Part 135 classification and exemption-based model hinge on the FAA’s decision to use an existing classification and requirements for drones, as opposed to creating a new, encompassing classification for all delivery drones. In addition, issuing exemptions on a case-by-case basis for each company creates a regulatory minefield that inhibits expansion and increases the risk for new firms entering the market, since there are not true standards for securing certification and operating delivery drones.
The FAA should work with industry leaders to standardize and streamline rules for commercial drone delivery operations. Standardization practices should include the ability to fly over roads, and people, and operate drones beyond the line of sight and outline safety requirements that would need to be met by operators in order to do so. Safety requirements could include height or weight requirements, specific package specifications, or size, shape, and speed of propellers, for example. The FAA should also consider delivery drones a unique type of aircraft technology and create a new overarching certification that addresses the specialized requirements for unmanned aircraft systems.