The U.S.’s cautious approach to commercial drone use is causing Americans to miss out on super-speedy package delivery and, possibly, a future economic bonanza
Author Boyd Farrow Illustration John Ritter
You give a waiter your order, and minutes later your food comes whizzing through the air on a flying tray. This may sound like something from “The Jetsons,” but diners in Singapore received just this kind of service earlier this year, when a restaurant chain tested the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)—or drones—as a labor-saving option. Timbre, the chain in question, aims to have Infinitum-Serve flying robots in operation at its five locations by this fall.
Chances are you’ve heard about the coming “drone invasion.” According to U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) estimates, there will be as many as 30,000 UAVs buzzing around the U.S. by decade’s end, not including the ones operated by our children (which are designated as toys rather than aircraft). We already have drones doing everything from chasing tornadoes to aiding search-and-rescue operations to delivering beer at music festivals. Where will it end?
This is a question that has apparently troubled the rapper Kanye West, who last year raised the possibility of a paparazzi drone dropping into his swimming pool and electrocuting his kid. And West isn’t the only concerned citizen. A recent survey found that 73 percent of Americans want stringent legislation applied to these gizmos, and 43 percent want a total ban on private ownership of them. To get to the source of such qualms, we need only look at the woman who, dining at a Brooklyn TGI Fridays last Christmas, lost the tip of her nose to an errant drone bearing mistletoe.
“There are technological and regulatory issues that are going to have to be worked through in every country,” says Philip Finnegan, director of aerospace analysts at the Teal Group. “Much will boil down to what the public will accept. But, long-term, there are going to be many commercial opportunities.”
The central problem for anyone looking to impose limits on drone use is that they occupy an area that is neither road nor sky, and so require a whole new category of rules. Earlier this year, the FAA introduced a litany of drone-related regulations, including a 100 mph speed limit, a requirement that the drone be visible to the operator and other “operational limits.” The European Aviation Safety Agency, for its part, admits that drone legislation in the EU is “fragmented,” which is another way of saying that it’s very loosely regulated.
In general, Europeans seem to have a laissez-faire approach to drone use. This summer, a U.K. firm named Drone Adverts will begin flying unmanned banner ads at major sporting events, an unlikely scenario anytime soon in America. And while Disney last year filed patents for entertainment drones at its theme parks, the Dutch already have an all-drone air show scheduled for the vast Amsterdam Arena this fall.
Timbre, the restaurant chain with the food-delivering drones, stresses the practical uses of UAVs rather than the novelty factor. “Our drones are not a publicity stunt,” says marketing manager Low Seow Yee. “In a country like Singapore, where skilled waiting staff are hard to come by, drones can help with the mundane task of delivery from kitchen to dining area while human waiters focus on actual service—interacting with customers.”
Either way, drones are gaining a foothold in the commercial sector. According to the Consumer Electronics Association, the global consumer market for UAVs will be $130 million this year—up by more than 50 percent from 2014. And even though government agencies remain the biggest users of drones—accounting for the bulk of the $6.4 billion global market—the financial potential of pizza delivery drones should not be taken lightly. “The commercial sector right now accounts for a tiny percentage of all drone sales,” says Finnegan, “but we are still talking about a brand-new, multibillion-dollar industry.”
So far, compulsive innovators like Google, Facebook and Amazon have been leading the pack in terms of private investment in R&D. Amazon has development centers for Prime Air—the company’s delivery arm, which is aiming to get packages into customers’ hands within 30 minutes using drones—in the U.S., the U.K. and Israel. And Amazon and Google have both invested in companies that manufacture drones.
Tellingly, however, Google’s Project Wing system is currently delivering supplies to farmers in Queensland, Australia, rather than Iowa. Germany and France, meanwhile, are in the preliminary stage of making postal deliveries by drone. In China—the country that’s led the world in UAV patents over the last few years—the Internet retail giant Alibaba has used drones to deliver products to customers who live an hour’s flight or less from its depots. The rules proposed by the FAA in February would effectively make such enterprises illegal.
This cautious approach, some observers say, could cause the U.S. to miss out on an inevitable drone-fueled economic bonanza, as politicians and concerned citizens debate issues of safety, security and privacy. Meanwhile, Ed Shepherd, owner of the British firm Drone Adverts, harbors more mundane concerns. “The biggest problem I foresee,” he says of his company’s work, “is bad weather.”
Berlin-based writer Boyd Farrow has filed a patent application for a drone that can manually change the channels on a television, thereby eliminating the need for remote controls.