Drone Advocates Push for Automated Package Delivery

The Federal Aviation Administration estimates that at least 442,000 commercial drones will be flying by 2021.

by Nicholas Cheng, San Francisco Chronicle / May 24, 2017
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(TNS) -- Companies are preparing to deliver packages to customers by drone or robot, industry representatives told a congressional subcommittee. But, they argued, looser and more consistent regulations will be needed to help the industry achieve lift-off.

Brian Wynne, CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, said drones could create about 100,000 jobs and generate $82 billion in a decade if they are allowed “full integration” in the national airspace.

“We are at the dawn of a new American renaissance in technology, one that deserves government attention and support,” Wynne told the House Subcommittee on Digital Commerce and Consumer Protection.

But some members questioned the potential for job losses and expressed privacy concerns.

“They are capable obviously of collecting data, taking photographs and other things people may regard as invasion of their personal privacy,” said Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vermont.

The Federal Aviation Administration estimates that at least 442,000 commercial drones will be flying by 2021. But industry representatives said they are tied down by a regulation that requires the drone to always be in the line of sight of its controller. The FAA can issue a waiver to fly a drone beyond line of sight, but rarely does so.

Another issue is the patchwork of state and local regulations involving drones, according to Sean Cassidy, director of safety and regulatory affairs for Amazon Prime Air.

Amazon Prime Air has already begun limited drone delivery trials in the British city Cambridge. DHL has run three tests for its parcelcopter in Germany since 2013, and Google experimented with Project Wing in 2014, delivering groceries to a farmer in Australia.

“There is some urgency on this matter — several other countries are moving ahead faster than we are,” said Shyam Chidamber, senior adviser for drone delivery startup Flirtey Inc.

British authorities allowed Amazon to make drone deliveries last year on a trial basis beyond the line of sight outside of urban areas and allowed one person to operate several drones at the same time.

China, New Zealand and Germany require a certificate from their aviation agencies to fly a drone beyond the line of sight.

The subcommittee also discussed delivery robots, which have sparked controversy in San Francisco. Supervisor Norman Yee introduced legislation last week to ban them. He raised concerns over privacy; the safety of those who share the sidewalk with the robots; and job losses for delivery workers.

Harry Holzer, a public policy professor with Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy, testified that historic reactions to disruptive markets are “almost always overblown.” But he acknowledged that technology has tended to displace workers with lower education levels.

Government should adopt policies like education, workforce development and wage insurance to soften the blow for workers displaced by technology and to help them find new jobs, he said: “Helping workers attain post-secondary credentials with strong labor market value must be our top goal.”

Alec Levenson, a senior research scientist at the University of Southern California’s Center for Effective Organization, said that while the U.S. will be quick to adapt to automation, it still must grapple with accidents and damage liability of unmanned deliveries.

Even then, it would take a lot of widespread use for technology to affect jobs in the delivery industry, he said. Drone delivery will happen, he said, but it will be awhile before it is used in a widespread way.

“We will have the equivalent of flying cars by the time there will be drones that can carry enough deliveries to make it a viable business and change the economy in a fundamental way,” he said.

©2017 the San Francisco Chronicle Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.