Since the outbreak of the coronavirus, we have seen the use of drones expand quite dramatically in a number of countries. For instance in China, Spain, and France local police are using unmanned aircraft to communicate to the public to stay inside and to follow the social distancing orders. In other countries such as Ireland, tests will begin shortly using drones to deliver food, medication and other urgent medical supplies such as vaccines directly to self-isolated people. Meanwhile, the use of drones in the United States to help fight the coronavirus has been off to a slow start. Recently DJI made 100 drones available for various first responder agencies around the country as part of their U.S. Disaster Relief Program. And, earlier this week, we learned Zipline is getting ready to start testing their medical drone delivery service in the United States as well. Meanwhile, the pressure is increasing on the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to relax the drone regulations for drones delivering packages to help limit person-to-person contact and to slow down the spreading virus. The Washington Examiner had a great piece on this that will be discussing below.
Pressure increase on the FAA to ease drone regulations
“People are looking at new ways to deal with social distancing, [and] they’re absolutely looking at new technologies to do that,” said Brett Velicovich, a strategic adviser at WhiteFox Defense Technologies Inc., a drone airspace security firm. Reportedly he added that “there is a lot of pressure happening right now from drone advocacy groups as we speak. They are telling the FAA to get moving on authorizing these drones to be used for various purposes.”
Since the outbreak of the coronavirus, the FAA has received inquiries to relax the regulations around drone operations to help slow down its spread.
Ashkhen Kazaryan, the director of civil liberties at the technology think tank TechFreedom, that looks at the legal and policy questions that arise around new technology such as drones, said that increased use of unmanned technology would lower the risk of contamination other people since fewer persons would be handling each package.
“There’s a lot of possibilities for contamination, whereas with drones delivery, no one is touching it aside from the person packing the drone and the person receiving the package,” she said, adding that “some of the other countries have been implementing more drones to mitigate risks associated with person-to-person contact.”
She also said that Amazon’s drone testing in the United Kingdom comes as no surprise since the FAA’s drone regulations are simply too restrictive.
“Amazon has been testing commercial deliveries in the U.K. for a few years now. They have a more relaxed and innovative approach to drone deliveries than the United States,” she said. Amazon declined to comment.
Recently, through a Part 135 certification, UPS and Wing Aviation have been allowed to start delivering packages with drones in the United States. It does require that the drone operators provide the aviation authority with the routes that the unmanned aircraft will fly. For some deliveries, such as between a hospital and a lab this might not be a problem. But, for companies like Amazon that would make deliveries by drone to residential customers who could live anywhere in an urban area, this would be unworkable.
Kazaryan said that the Part 135 certification is more of an exemption than a real allowance to make deliveries by drone any time and to any location.
“It doesn’t automatically clear the way for drone deliveries across the country. It’s more of an exemption than a widespread allowance,” she said, adding that drone operators “get a certification for specific locations.”
In an email to the Washington Examiner, Kazaryan wrote that the FAA is “very slow and heavy” when it comes to issuing new certifications.
“Bottom line is that there are some movements but with regulation both on federal, state and local level and very slow regulatory process drone delivery won’t be a reality for a while, unless FAA or states step up and put together a regulatory infrastructure that can save lives in the midst of this pandemic,” she wrote.
In other less restrictive countries, we have seen a much wider use and acceptance of drones. As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, we have seen police use drones in China, France, and Spain to communicate with people. Drones have been used to disinfect public areas in China. In Rwanda, Zipline has been using drones to deliver medical supplies around the country for years now, successfully completing over 34,000 flights.
However, as drone expert, Velicovich agrees, in the United States it is not the technology that is holding us back the widespread use of drones but the strict regulations that are enforced by the FAA. About Zipline specifically, Velicovich says:
“The blood is literally parachuted down from the drone and delivered to the hospital. It’s not that the technology already doesn’t exist to date to do that: It absolutely does. It’s more a regulation thing. The FAA in the U.S. is the most restrictive in the entire world. So when we know we can deliver blood and medical supplies via drone in Rwanda, which is already happening, the FAA is not allowing that to happen in the United States.”
Hopefully, the FAA will soon start to relax the rules around the use of drones so that we can use the aircraft for good and combat the coronavirus.