“Oh my god.”
Remember when Jeff Bezos blew back Charlie Rose’s hair with the surprise reveal of Amazon’s top-secret Prime Air drone delivery service on 60 Minutes? The normally reserved newsman’s reaction—a mixture of genuine shock and boyish giddiness—was almost as surprising as Bezos’s plan to deliver products to customers’ doors within 30 minutes of purchase via eight-propeller, unmanned aerial vehicles. And as if responding to what everyone watching at home was already muttering, the shiny-domed king of e-commerce responded robotically, “I know this looks like science fiction. It’s not.”
Maybe not exactly science fiction, but it certainly seemed wishful thinking for a whole shopping cart full of reasons, not least of which was the fact that the Federal Aviation Administration had yet to establish rules for the commercial use of drones in U.S. airspace that would address safety and privacy concerns. Bezos seemed well aware of the regulatory obstacles he’d have to fly around, predicting that the service could be four or five years from launching—this was back in December 2013—and even that, he allowed, was optimistic. As it turns out, it was very optimistic. Because as a Congressional hearing revealed this winter, the FAA will miss its September 2015 deadline for implementing drone regulations by at least two years, leaving Amazon and several other prospective for-profit drone operators hanging.
“No one is satisfied with how fast they’re working,” says Michael Drobac, the executive director of the Small UAV Coalition, a Washington, DC–based advocacy group that represents businesses clamoring to enter the drone space. Amazon, it should come as no surprise, is a member. And part of the collective frustration comes from the regulatory cloud that hangs over the industry as the FAA drafts its rules: Operating drones for commercials purposes, under any circumstances, is forbidden. On the other hand, flying them in an R&D capacity is allowed, but only with an FAA-granted exemption. While the agency has issued a handful of those exemptions—one went to a Spokane-based company that will use camera-equipped drones for crop monitoring—more than 100 other applicants are still waiting.
Doug Branch was one of the first in line. The West Seattle–based commercial pilot applied in July 2014 for permission to film a promotional video for the City of SeaTac and had yet to hear back as of late December. He offered to take on the project—at no charge—as a favor to a friend in the city’s public works department, but once the FAA’s rules are finally sorted out he hopes to make some extra cash by using his DJI Phantom 2 for…well, he’s not quite sure yet. “There are a lot of little quirky things that you could do with it that you would have trouble doing with a plane or a helicopter,” he says. “It has a lot of potential.”
Of course, there are those who aren’t willing to stay grounded. One downtown resident who requested anonymity for fear of drawing the FAA’s attention—we’ll call him John—has been taking on odd, for-profit videography jobs since buying his drone last March. He says he didn’t know at the time that what he was doing was illegal, but finding out later that it was hasn’t deterred him. “I get the FAA’s concerns,” he says. “But the fact that they haven’t been able to get their shit together and put together some guidelines—when they’ve been dealing with this for two years—is kind of ridiculous.”
John’s rationalization for pressing forward despite the risks echoes the main complaint from many others in the commercial space: The longer the feds drag their feet, the better the chances that aerial entrepreneurs from Seattle and beyond could fall behind the technological curve. Amazon, for one, isn’t willing to let that happen. In a letter to the FAA in December, its vice president of global public policy made the company’s intentions very clear: “Without the ability to test outdoors in the United States soon,” he wrote, “we will have no choice but to divert even more of our [drone] research and development abroad.”
So for at least the time being, what Bezos claimed wasn’t science fiction will remain purely fiction.
This article appeared in the February 2015 issue of Seattle Met magazine.