The Wait for Private Drone Flight Just Got Longer

Beer-by-drone delivery is even further away than we hoped.

Demonstrators hold up a paper drone as they protest against the Munich Security Conference on February 1, 2014 in Munich, southern Germany.
National Journal
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Dustin Volz
Feb. 5, 2014, 12:37 p.m.

The skies of the fu­ture will have to wait.

Fed­er­al reg­u­lat­ors dealt a sud­den — if some­what ex­pec­ted — blow to fans of all things drones on Wed­nes­day, ad­mit­ting that the Fed­er­al Avi­ation Ad­min­is­tra­tion won’t make its 2015 dead­line to ready non­mil­it­ary drones for in­teg­ra­tion in­to com­mer­cial air­space.

Of­fi­cials in­formed the House Trans­port­a­tion and In­fra­struc­ture Avi­ation Sub­com­mit­tee that they will not reach a goal etched by a 2012 act of Con­gress to ready such air­craft for flight next year, an ac­know­ledge­ment that is un­likely to sur­prise many in the drone in­dustry who have grown ac­cus­tomed to such delays.

“Un­der­ly­ing pro­gram­mat­ic and or­gan­iz­a­tion­al chal­lenges that we have pre­vi­ously re­por­ted con­tin­ue to im­pact FAA’s abil­ity to de­liv­er Nex­t­Gen cap­ab­il­it­ies as ori­gin­ally planned,” said Calv­in Scov­el, in­spect­or gen­er­al for the Trans­port­a­tion De­part­ment. “While FAA has made pro­gress “¦ it has de­term­ined that it will not meet the Septem­ber 2015 dead­line for [drone] in­teg­ra­tion due to a series of com­plex tech­no­lo­gic­al, reg­u­lat­ory, and ma­na­geri­al bar­ri­ers.”

The FAA an­nounced six test sites at the end of last year where re­search­ers are de­vel­op­ing and fly­ing un­manned drones, barely meet­ing a dead­line it had set to award con­tracts with­in 2013. The agency has re­peatedly missed dead­lines im­posed by Con­gress guid­ing its pro­gress of drone in­teg­ra­tion.

The delay will no doubt be cheered by pri­vacy ad­voc­ates, such as Demo­crat­ic Sen. Ed­ward Mar­key, who worry about the tech­no­lo­gic­al im­plic­a­tions of drone tech­no­logy.

Drones earned a re­mark­able surge in at­ten­tion head­ing in­to the Christ­mas shop­ping sea­son last year, as Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos teased the po­ten­tial for pack­age de­liv­ery. Re­cent nov­el con­cepts for com­mer­cial drone use have in­cluded a beer de­liv­ery ser­vice in Michigan, which was groun­ded for vi­ol­at­ing the cur­rent ban on drones.

In Novem­ber, the FAA re­leased a road map de­tail­ing its five-year goals for drone in­teg­ra­tion. The agency said that it ex­pec­ted 7,500 un­manned air­craft to dot the skies with­in that in­ter­val, and that 30,000 could take flight by 2025.

“FAA [and] gov­ern­ment gen­er­ally, is be­ing asked to do more with less,” FAA chief Mi­chael Huerta said dur­ing his open­ing re­marks Wed­nes­day. “Giv­en the fisc­al chal­lenges we have seen in the past year and the con­tin­ued dif­fi­cult fin­an­cial en­vir­on­ment, we are go­ing to have to have thought­ful con­ver­sa­tions about how FAA should pri­or­it­ize its role.”