Disruption is coming to the manufacturing industry, and its name is drone delivery—or is it 3D-Printing? Or are driverless cars the real disruptor?
The truth is all of these things are coming, and though lawmakers are scrambling to prepare the legal landscape for their arrival technology (as it is wont to do) is outpacing regulation by at least a mile. Amazon, the Internet giant that made its name in sales and has branched off to other projects, has put its eggs in the drone delivered basket, launching its “Prime Air” program. At the time it seemed like novel, straight out of science fiction idea being realized in the real world before anyone else could get to it. But as drone regulation stalls and limits the program, is it possible Amazon bet on the wrong horse?
When Amazon initially floated the idea of a drone delivery program in 2013, there weren’t drone regulations to either guide them or stand in their way. But in the years since the FAA’s rules have evolved along with Amazon’s drones. The FAA allows commercial drones under 55 pounds (with rules for drone rules in development) to fly up to 500 feet and stay in a clear line of sight of the operator. The latest drone model came from Amazon came at the end of last year, and advertised itself as flying at a cool 400 feet, carrying only packages up to five pounds, and using “sense and avoid” technology to make smart choices as it flies.
Of course as of now it’s unclear whether the FAA will go for AI technology being the guiding hand and allowing for minimal human oversight. But that’s not the only problem: Amazon’s technology requires a certain amount of landing space, meaning it might not be as available for urban consumers living in crowded neighborhoods or apartment buildings. Not to mention major metropolitan areas like Washington, D.C. that live under a no-fly zone. It’s not an impediment that can’t adjust to allow commercial drone operations, but it’s going to take some doing, as The Washington Post writes:
Drones have been involved in a number of security incidents around the country. The flying devices have been identified buzzing around airports, power plants and even wildfires. And remember when a drone crashed on the White House lawn?
“Look, it is what it is. I mean, D.C. is a special place,” said one tech industry official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the issue is politically sensitive.
The ability of unmanned aircraft to cause havoc, even unintentionally, makes a no-fly zone virtually a necessity in Washington. But what began as a security measure to defend the Mall, the Capitol and other soft targets will almost certainly end up creating an imbalance between D.C. and the rest of the country once drone delivery really takes off.
Given the popularity and success of drone programs abroad it’s clear that drone delivery, along plenty of other applications, is useful in principle. The difference is drone legislation in other countries typically isn’t as unwieldy as it is here in the U.S.
“As regulators prepare to integrate drones into the airspace, it is clear that safety has to be the number-one priority,” said Representative Michael C. Burgess at a House subcommittee meeting in November. “But cutting-edge drone testing and evaluation is occurring overseas because the current process to approve commercial drone use is both restrictive and cumbersome in the United States.”
Meanwhile other manufacturer delivery options surge ahead, either unimpeded or in conjunction with regulation. Though privacy and road-safety concerns abound around driverless cars, the idea that someday your package could be delivered by an autonomous car is not something that’s going ignored by the industry. Representatives of the driverless car industry even proactively met with Congress this month to discuss what’s down the road for regulating the market.
And that’s all before considering the colossal impact 3D printing will have when it gets here. Driverless cars may not ease the burden on our straining freight infrastructure, but 3D printing sure could. With 3D printers becoming more and more affordable, a future where consumers simply download schematics from manufacturers and “build” things themselves—from medicine to furniture to clothes, and beyond—might be closer than once thought. Amazon could’ve been the big push behind bringing 3D printing home for consumers to drive the industry and ease their delivery burdens. And with the legislation around 3D printing surprisingly sparse, it could’ve been much sooner than Amazon Prime Air will be able to get off the ground.
No doubt commercial drones will soon take their place in our skies, and it seems Amazon is going to be a big part of that. But as anyone who’s ever had their flight delayed, sometimes the FAA makes it so there’s better ways to get from point A to point B.