Amazon's drone delivery plan still faces FAA hurdles

On the Sunday evening broadcast of 60 Minutes, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos showed off the company’s latest research and development project: delivery by drone.

The “Prime Air” system of octocoptors could someday deliver packages of up to five pounds using GPS coordinates to find their drop-off spot, Bezos explained to CBS's Charlie Rose.

“This is early, this is still years away,” he said. “It can’t be before 2015, because that’s the earliest that we could get the rules from the FAA.”

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has strict regulations for drones, which are technically called unmanned aircraft systems (UAS). Their use is permitted on a case-by-case basis, and has been authorized for firefighting, disaster relief, law enforcement, border patrol, and research and development. Tech start-ups and media organizations have also used drones. One Bay Area entrepreneur even designed a TacoCopter -- as the name suggests, a drone that could deliver tacos to your doorstep.

The regulations allow for drones like Amazon’s proposed octocoptors to operate -- but their use is banned in major urban areas and high-traffic airspace. They are also not yet permitted for exclusively commercial use. This, coupled with the case-by-case policy, wouldn’t exactly work for the thousands of deliveries that Amazon fulfills each day.

Before the delivery system can be cleared for takeoff, the FAA needs to finish a regulatory modernization process, dubbed the "roadmap." In a report released on Nov. 7, the FAA laid out a five-year plan for how it will integrate drones into American airspace.

“We must fulfill those obligations in a thoughtful, careful manner that ensures safety and promotes economic growth,” FAA Administrator Michal Huerta said in a speech to aerospace industry executives. He estimated that there could be 7,500 commercial-use drones in American skies within the next five years.

The first step in the plan is to accommodate existing drones. Next, the FAA will develop performance and use standards for future systems. The final step calls for accommodating the ever-advancing drone technology, so that regulations are not quickly outdated.

Throughout the process, the FAA is looking to ensure that unmanned aircraft are as safe as manned aircraft. There will be certification requirements and control stations, communication protocols, design and technology standards and privacy policies.

“Make no mistake about it, privacy is an extremely important issue and it is something that the public has a significant interest and concern over and we need to recognize as an industry that if we are going to take full advantage of the benefits that we are talking about for these technologies we need to be responsive to the public’s concerns about privacy,” Huerta said.

There is also the issue of theft and hacking. What's to stop a clever thief from knocking Amazon's drones out of the sky and stealing the packages, or hacking into the GPS system to redirect the drone?

"If you can convincingly fake a GPS signal, you can convince an [unmanned aerial vehicle] into tracking your signal instead of the authentic one, and at that point you can control the UAV," Todd Humphreys, an assistant professor specializing in orbital mechanics, said before Congress in July 2012.

A system similar to Prime Air is already being tested in China. The company SF Express told Chinese media in September that it is testing octocopters as delivery devices in the city of Dongguan, in Guangdong province.

In the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, Congress set a September 2015 deadline for regulations integrating unmanned aircraft into American airspace. Even if the FAA meets the deadline, it’s unlikely that Prime Air will launch that soon. A more accurate, yet still optimistic, estimate is four or five years, Bezos told 60 Minutes.

The hardest part, he added, is making sure the drones don’t “land on somebody’s head.”

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    Danielle Elliot is a freelance science editor and reporter for CBS News. She holds an M.A. in science and health journalism from Columbia University and a B.A. in broadcast journalism from the University of Maryland. Follow her on Twitter - @daniellelliot.

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