In the race for drone delivery, the U.K. is way ahead of the U.S.


But first it has to figure out a low-altitude air traffic control system.

Amazon and other retailers are eager to soar above city streets (and traffic) to deliver to your doorstep faster and cheaper with drones.

And while regulatory issues remain a big hurdle, the U.K. is poised to be the first major market to make it an everyday reality.

Unmanned aircraft testing is already under way, with companies like UPS in the United States, DHL in Germany and Amazon in Canada and the U.K., all fine-tuning their aircraft’s safety in order to convince regulators their drones can fly and land without harming people or property.

But it’s the British regulators who have been more responsive and are more likely to tackle immediate issues for the budding industry, such as allowing drones to fly out of an operator’s sight line, which is currently still illegal without a waiver, as well as figuring out how to manage multiple drones in flight the same way air traffic controllers manage airplanes.

Faster across the pond

For starters, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), the U.K.’s version of America’s FAA, isn’t beholden to the same policymaking schedule that’s set by Congress, meaning it takes far longer for the FAA to enact new regulations.

The FAA, for example, issued the current rules for drone flying nearly a year after Congress ordered the regulations to be finalized. And when Amazon asked U.S. regulators for permission to open a drone testing site in the states, the FAA wasn’t ready, prompting the U.S. company to test its drones in Canada and the U.K. instead.

Amazon applied to begin testing in the U.S. in 2014, but it didn’t receive a permit from the FAA until almost a year later. By that time, Amazon said, the drone it had requested permission to fly had become obsolete. Amazon already received permission from the CAA to operate in British skies.

The retailing giant has already expanded its U.K. drone operations to take advantage of its faster regulatory process. It was well on the way to opening its test site in the U.K. In December 2014, and its Prime Air division started hiring aerospace engineers, looking specifically for people with experience flying drones.

Traffic management

Whatever country first crafts rules for drone delivery will have to tackle one question no single drone-maker can solve alone: Low-altitude air traffic control.

Drones flying out of line of sight need to be able to ensure that they won’t hit other drones or collide with buildings or trees, and they’ll also need a way to know which areas to avoid and when.

That is, drones need to share and receive real-time information, both with other drones as well as operators and local authorities, especially considering that unmanned aircraft can land and take off anywhere, unlike airplanes. In other words, managing air traffic for drones will be much more difficult than for airplanes.

It’s a government-level problem that requires reliable, networked communication.

Unlike in the U.S., where air traffic control is managed by the federal government, in the U.K. it is run by a company, NATS, in a public-private partnership with the government.

NATS started conducting trials of a drone air traffic control system in unsegregated airspace a year ago, and the CAA is working with Amazon to collect data from its regular flight tests to help inform policy.

The U.S. has been thinking about low-altitude air traffic control, too, but on a much longer timeline. NASA is working with both the FAA (and a bit with the CAA) to create recommendations for a drone traffic management system and will test scenarios where drones fly beyond operator’s line of sight in a controlled location in Nevada this month.

The agency ran another test earlier this year in which it was able to map simultaneous drone flights from disparate locations across the country. Still, these are essentially research tests intended for making recommendations.

And recommendations alone don’t offer a solution. NASA doesn’t plan to share the final results of its airspace integration recommendations until 2019. Even then, a low-altitude air traffic control plan will have to go through the U.S. regulatory policymaking process, which requires a one- to two-month public notice and comment period, not including the agency’s own deliberation time.

Follow the leader

The country that first creates commercial drone rules will be at a huge advantage, attracting early drone delivery startups, new patents and investment.

The U.S. resolved many of the legal uncertainties surrounding the internet in the 1990s with the Communications Decency Act and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, laying the foundation for U.S. companies to dominate the commercial internet. These early laws weren’t perfect, but made investors feel confident enough to build new companies.

“I think people forget how lucky the U.S. got with the internet,” says Ryan Calo, a technology law professor at the University of Washington.

The reason why all the most popular internet companies are American, says Calo, has as much to do with these early rules of the road as it does with the fact that the internet was invented in the U.S.

A coming swarm

It’s not just Amazon which has decamped across the pond. DHL, which is a huge delivery service in the U.K., completed a major round of drone testing over the summer. And DPD, another noteworthy player on the U.K. delivery circuit, has been building drone technology since 2014. Even the Royal Mail, the U.K. national postal service, expressed interest in using drones, especially amid warnings that rural mail delivery in the country may be under threat due to disproportionately high delivery costs.

Still, the partnership Amazon launched with the CAA puts the company ahead of the rest. And it doesn’t appear that any company has been testing and developing drone technology as aggressively as Amazon.

While today many of the innovative drone startups, like 3DR and CyPhy, are located in the U.S., if the U.K. figures out how to safely integrate drones in its airspace before the U.S., there’s no reason why American drone firms wouldn’t move or open divisions where they can legally use their technology for broader commercial applications.

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