Monday, December 2, 2013
The big aviation news item over the weekend was last night's unveiling of Amazon's Prime Air concept, which would utilize unmanned aerial vehicles to deliver packages within 30 minutes. In a pleasant surprise, a fair share of the subsequent reporting has been appropriately skeptical regarding the near-term feasibility of such an enterprise. The FAA roadmap for integrating unmanned vehicles into U.S. domestic airspace doesn't currently envision widespread usage by private commercial actors in the near future, beginning instead with adoption on a limited basis by public entities such as police and fire departments. More importantly, the FAA will likely require the first iteration of civilian drones to be remotely piloted, as opposed to the completely autonomous operation Amazon envisions. So why did Amazon begin promoting a new business concept that faces such significant obstacles before its eventual realization? The most intriguing answer I've seen to that question was put forth by NY Magazine's Kevin Roose, who suggested that Amazon was trying to garner popular enthusiasm for the idea in order to increase public pressure on the FAA not to impede progress. Given public queasiness about drones, its possible such a campaign could backfire if that is indeed Amazon's intent. However, Roose is right to observe that UAV regulation is a largely under-the-radar public policy issue that could only benefit from more public attention. If Prime Air helps to generate that attention, then we should be grateful.