No, Marijuana Drones Are Not Coming Soon

Flying beer will have to wait, too.

National Journal
Alex Brown
Add to Briefcase
Alex Brown
March 17, 2014, 11:58 a.m.

It was the sort of only-in-Cali­for­nia head­line that was just plaus­ible enough to be true: “Med­ic­al Marijuana De­livered by Fly­ing Drones.”

But fly­ing drones aren’t about to de­liv­er any­thing — let alone marijuana.

“We are not de­liv­er­ing med­ic­al marijuana,” con­firmed QuiQui founder Joshua Zier­ing, who hopes his fleet of drones will one day be able to drop off pre­scrip­tion drugs. “I think [the In­ter­na­tion­al Busi­ness Times] just made it up.”

Sen­sa­tion­al­ist head­lines aside, Zier­ing’s as­pir­a­tions are ser­i­ous — as are the hopes of many en­tre­pren­eurs who see drones as the tech­no­logy be­hind a great new busi­ness mod­el. Beer com­pan­ies, flor­ists, even ma­jor-league base­ball teams — it seems no one can es­cape the ap­peal of fly­ing ro­bots.

But just be­cause drones can bring you a six-pack or shoot some awe­some spring train­ing im­ages doesn’t mean they’re al­lowed to do so.

Earli­er this month, the Fed­er­al Avi­ation Ad­min­is­tra­tion briefly lost its abil­ity to po­lice the un­manned skies when a judge ruled it lacked the au­thor­ity. But a day later, the agency ap­pealed, and com­mer­cial drones are again groun­ded un­til the mat­ter is settled.

That hasn’t stopped com­pan­ies who saw the tem­por­ary re­prieve as an open­ing for their auto­mated de­liv­ery plans — or at least a fun pub­li­city stunt. Lake­maid Beer told Na­tion­al Journ­al it was re­sur­rect­ing plans to work on a beer de­liv­ery sys­tem for ice fish­er­men. A Michigan flor­ist, stung when its Valentine’s Day de­liv­ery plan met the FAA’s dis­ap­prov­al, wasted no time an­noun­cing it would re­sume test­ing.

Even the Wash­ing­ton Na­tion­als took to the skies to get some pre­season pub­li­city shots.

While the FAA tries to clear up mis­per­cep­tions over what the rul­ing and the ap­peal mean, the var­ied re­sponses il­lus­trate the con­fu­sion over just what busi­nesses are al­lowed to do — and what the FAA can and will do to stop them.

“Com­mer­cial op­er­a­tions are only au­thor­ized on a case-by-case basis,” the FAA’s Eliza­beth Cory said in an email last month. “A com­mer­cial flight re­quires a cer­ti­fied air­craft, a li­censed pi­lot, and op­er­at­ing ap­prov­al. To date, only one op­er­a­tion has met these cri­ter­ia.” That’s an op­er­a­tion that uses drones to con­duct en­vir­on­ment­al sur­veys in the Arc­tic pri­or to drilling.

But it’s un­clear just how many busi­nesses have a full grasp of those guidelines. Some have ar­gued their low-fly­ing craft aren’t break­ing any laws — but the FAA’s 400-foot lim­it is in place for hob­by­ists, not com­mer­cial users. Oth­ers are basing plans off the court de­cision, but not the FAA’s ap­peal.

This con­fu­sion makes it harder for the agency to po­lice the sky. While the FAA can shut down busi­nesses whose drone plans make the news, it’s nearly im­possible to reg­u­late com­pan­ies who don’t an­nounce their pres­ence.

“You have this choosy poli­cing, and I think that’s a waste of time,” Zier­ing said. He would prefer to see drone op­er­at­ors come up with uni­form, self-reg­u­lat­ing stand­ards, sim­il­ar to the mod­el air­plane in­dustry.

Cur­rently, it seems the FAA is tak­ing it easy on drone users who don’t un­der­stand the rules. The beer com­pany and the flor­ist both re­ceived only po­lite warn­ings from the agency that their op­er­a­tions wer­en’t al­lowed. In fact, the court case that led to the chal­lenge of the FAA’s au­thor­ity is the only time it has tried to levy pun­ish­ment (a $10,000 fine for reck­less fly­ing dur­ing a com­mer­cial shoot).

For now, Zier­ing says he real­izes the drone re­volu­tion will have to wait on reg­u­la­tion, and that might be slow go­ing. “I re­spect the FAA, and I re­spect the [Na­tion­al Trans­port­a­tion Safety Board],” he said. “Ob­vi­ously, they’re not ready for this to hap­pen yet and we’re go­ing to try to re­spect that as much as pos­sible.” Still, he said, “this is gonna hap­pen one way or an­oth­er,” and QuiQui wants to be ready when the rules be­come clear.

The FAA did not im­me­di­ately re­spond to re­quests for com­ment.

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