Who's going to fly those Amazon delivery drones?

An FAA exemption offers clues about the future of commercial drone flight
Written by Greg Nichols, Contributing Writer

In advance of Cyber Monday, Amazon unveiled a new prototype delivery drone for its still-theoretical Prime Air service.

The drone, which was introduced in a YouTube video by former Top Gear star Jeremy Clarkson, is a radical design departure from the spindly-legged black drone that everyone saw in 2013 when CEO Jeff Bezos announced Amazon's drone delivery aspirations. (The company will apparently fall short of Bezos's goal of having drone deliveries in 2015.) The new model, which is designed to deliver packages of up to five pounds, takes off like a helicopter before switching into a horizontal flight mode.

The video shows the drone swooping through the sky at 400 feet, the maximum ceiling currently allowed by the FAA for small drones. Notably, the video also shows the drone moving well beyond the limit of what could conceivably be considered "line of sight." Currently, FAA rules require both commercial and hobbyist drones to stay within the pilot's line of sight. Those rules are likely to change or become more nuanced, but the video raises an interesting question:

Who exactly is going to fly those delivery drones?

A look at the latest flight planning technology as well as a recent FAA decision suggests the answer will probably be no one.

Last week, the FAA granted its first Section 333 exemption for a completely autonomous drone system designed to inspect cell towers, wind turbines, and other large structures. The FAA has a lot at stake when it comes to issuing rules governing the commercial use of unmanned aviation systems (UAS). Until those rules are solidified, the agency has been granting what are known as Section 333 exemptions to allow companies to deploy UAS for commercial use.

The autonomous system that got the exemption last week is the result of a partnership between autonomous solutions developer PRENAV and drone company Hawk Aerial. The FAA's willingness to grant that exemption may signal the inevitability of a long-anticipated future in which delivery, inspection, and law enforcement drones crisscross the National Air Space using autonomous navigation and sense and avoid technology to avert calamity.

"Using drones to inspect structures such as cell towers and wind turbines typically requires an expert pilot because GPS isn't adequate for close proximity flight," says Nathan Schuett, CEO of PRENAV. "The PRENAV system is the first drone to be approved by the FAA that will enable these types of missions to be performed autonomously, where the flight is aided by a robot on the ground."

Navigating along pre-defined, repeatable flight paths, PRENAV's drones take photographs from precise locations in close proximity to structures to build accurate 3D reconstructions of industrial assets. The system consists of a commercial drone, a guidance robot on the ground, and software to plan the mission and analyze the data. This enables PRENAV's customers to inspect structures with enough precision to analyze individual nuts, bolts, serial numbers, and small sections of cabling.

How accurate are PRENAV-enhanced drones? The company recently submitted a short film to the Flying Robot international Film Festival (FRiFF) in San Francisco. The film, which won in the LOL WTF category (no, really), illustrates the precision with which PRENAV-equipped systems can fly along preprogrammed routes by spelling out words and creating complex patterns in light.

It's not difficult to envision the technology migrating to Amazon's drones as part of a suite of sensing and guidance technology. For now, Amazon hasn't announced any timeline for Prime Air, and with the FAA's rulemaking for commercial drones dragging on the service is unlikely to come online anytime soon. For you prospective pilots hoping for a cool delivery job, you might want to set your sights elsewhere.

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