Jan 14, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Cities prepare for home delivery by drone

Illustration of a drone carrying a pizza delivery box

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

The Federal Aviation Administration has released new and looser rules for flying drones over highly populated areas and at night, effectively laying a welcome mat for future aerial deliveries of takeout food, Amazon packages, prescription drugs — you name it.

Why it matters: While the prospect of Jetsons-style convenience with less street gridlock is tantalizing, there are still plenty of logistical hurdles, and it will take some time for cities to figure out how to manage low-altitude air traffic as routinely as they do today's road traffic.

Driving the news: FAA rules — handed down late last month — will require drones flying over cities to use remote identification technology, so people on the ground can tell what they're doing and who owns them.

  • This safety and security system will amount to "a digital license plate for drones," according to the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, Reuters reports.
  • "With a single announcement, the Federal Aviation Administration is formally pivoting from approving case-by-case exemptions [for urban drone-flying] to setting broad safety standards the industry has long sought," per the WSJ.
  • The new rules replace "stringent protections that currently bar practically all home-delivery options" and will take effect in about two months, the Journal said.

What's happening: Cities like Los Angeles have just started trying to prepare citizens for the change, disruption and unanticipated weirdnesses that the era of drone delivery will bring.

  • Mayor Eric Garcetti announced the "Urban Air Mobility Partnership" to get people used to seeing unusual flying things in the sky — and to develop a policy toolkit that could serve as a national blueprint.
  • A company called Urban Movement Labs will lead "a year-long effort to educate and engage Angelenos around [the] low-noise, electric aircraft expected to fly in L.A.’s skies as soon as 2023."
  • The plan involves building a demonstration "vertiport" where people can try out newfangled aircraft.

Of note: The effort isn't limited to L.A.

  • On a national level, the National League of Cities has formed a panel of 25 cities and towns that will advise the federal government on integrating drones into U.S. communities.
  • Wade Troxell, the mayor of Fort Collins, Colo., will represent urban interests by serving on the FAA’s Drone Advisory Committee.
  • The World Economic Forum — in collaboration with Garcetti's office — has developed seven "Principles of the Urban Sky" to help cities consider how best to integrate drones.

What they're saying: The FAA regs will "allow drones to fly over populated areas provided that the propellers which could possibly hurt someone are covered," Barry Alexander, CEO of Aquiline Drones, tells Axios.

  • "The drone industry is gaining maturity at a very rapid rate, and I think society — with the right amount of education — will find itself embracing and supporting drone technology."
  • The benefits could include not only package delivery but "saving lives, or removing humans from harm's way, and even reducing carbon footprints," Alexander says.

The bottom line: Expect to get mightily accustomed to the acronym "UAV," or unmanned aerial vehicle.

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