Amazon Gets Federal OK for Drone Delivery Fleet

Lawmakers debate regulations for delivery robots on public sidewalks.

September 03, 2020

ALEXANDRIA, Va.—In the time of COVID, many consumers avoid stores and want to make purchases and have them delivered quickly. Now, Amazon is working to meet that demand with high tech solutions that go beyond traditional delivery methods.

Recently, Amazon joined UPS and Wing in gaining approval to test unmanned drone fleets for making deliveries, according to the Wall Street Journal. Amazon has been seeking regulatory approval for a broader range of drones and over a larger geographic area than its competitors. The recent OK from the FAA isn’t tied to a specific drone model but operations of a fleet.

Last year, Wing began delivering food and other supplies to customers in Virginia and has conducted tests in partnership with Walgreens and FedEx. UPS, which has received FAA approval to build a fleet of drones, has been delivering medical supplies at a hospital network in Raleigh, North Carolina. Uber Technologies has conducted limited drone-delivery tests in the U.S. but hasn’t received the same level of FAA approval as the other three.

The drone-delivery industry is growing. Both startups and legacy companies believe that commercial drones can speed up delivery efficiency and become an important tool for numerous industries. That conviction has been cemented by the growing demand in noncontact package deliveries during the pandemic.

But before widespread deliveries will be allowed, the FAA must establish alternate, automated air-traffic-control networks since the current systems using existing radars and human controllers won’t be able to handle the large increases in drone operations. Senior FAA officials have indicated they expect White House approval and publication of needed regulations to come before the end of the year.

Dan Elwell, the FAA’s No. 2 official, told an industry conference in July that the agency is taking a cautious “crawl, walk, run” strategy for opening the skies to drones. “We’re still crawling right now,” he said. “We’re not there yet, but we’re close.”

Meanwhile, Kansas lawmakers and lobbyists recently debated a bill that would allow “personal delivery devices”—or robots—to deliver goods to homes and business using public sidewalks. The bill would have limited the robot’s weight to 150 pounds, not including the cargo inside, and permitted them to operate on any sidewalk or crosswalk in Kansas at speeds up to six miles per hour, reports.

Lawmakers said the measure was drafted with help from Amazon, and in testimony before a state senate committee, Amazon lobbyist Jennie Massey said the bill would allow devices like Scout, the company’s bright blue, six-wheeled robot, “to bring new technology and innovation to Kansas.” She noted that Amazon had invested $2.2 billion in Kansas since 2010, and that the company employed 3,000 full-time workers in the state.

Erik Sartorius, executive director of the Kansas League of Municipalities, said, “I think some members of the committee hadn’t really considered the impact on their communities.”

The Kansas bill failed, but it was just one battle in a bigger war. Amazon and FedEx have backed similar bills permitting delivery robots in more than a dozen states this year, and at least six have become law.

The companies both hope to see delivery vans full of robots arrive in neighborhoods, allowing robots to travel the “last mile” to customers’ doorsteps without human aid. But first they must get bills passed that would allow the bots to travel on sidewalks.

Backers say the laws will usher in a future where household items show up in a matter of hours, with fewer idling delivery vans blocking traffic and spewing emissions.

“This is part of the beginning of a revolution in transportation,” said Dave Marsden, a Virginia state senator who sponsored that state’s bill, which became law in April. “These things are going to operate fairly flawlessly, and once people get used to them, it will ease the way for [other technology].”

Opponents worry about the future of sidewalks. “I’m worried about it walking up on a person and losing control, or getting stuck in a pothole, or climbing up a person’s porch and falling through,” said Adam Hollier, a Michigan state senator who voted against Michigan’s bill in committee. It is still being considered.