The news that Amazon.com Inc. is testing drones to serve as delivery vehicles for consumers shines a spotlight on a technology with significant Maryland connections.
Chief Executive Officer Jeff Bezos unveiled the plan Sunday on CBS’s “60 Minutes,” showing interviewer Charlie Rose some flying machines called octocopters that can carry as much as 5 pounds within a 10-mile radius of an Amazon fulfillment center. Amazon may start using the drones, which can make a delivery within 30 minutes, within five years pending Federal Aviation Administration approval, Bezos said.
Northrop Grumman Corp., which is based in Northern Virginia, has tested several unmanned aircraft systems of varying wing spans in connection with launchers developed by AAI of Hunt Valley, a Textron Systems company.
“Unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) fuel the imagination because the technology can be scaled for so many possible applications,” Bill Irby, senior vice president and general manager of AAI Unmanned Aircraft Systems, told The Daily Record in a statement.
“UAS offer tremendous promise for scientific and environmental study, law enforcement, emergency response and even cargo transport,” Irby said. “Further, the integration of UAS into national airspace would benefit the economy nationally and locally, where businesses employ many talented engineers, manufacturing workers and other skilled employees supporting UAS.”
The FAA is slowly moving forward with guidelines to allow expanded use of drones but has had numerous delays. Many of the commercial advances in drone use have come out of Europe, Australia and Japan. Delivery drones are already in use by the Australian company Zookal to deliver textbooks, said Oliver Lamb, director of Sydney-based Pacific Aviation Consulting. In China, a delivery company called SF Express is experimenting with drones in the southern city of Dongguan, according to a report by the Civil Aviation Resource Net of China.
“When and how to allow this kind of delivery is going to be a big question,” Lamb said. “Regulators will have to deal with this, and I’m sure each jurisdiction will come up with regulations to allow this in due course.”
Then there are the security issues. Delivering packages by drone might be impossible in a city like Washington, D.C., which has many no-fly zones.
“The technology has moved forward faster than the law has kept pace,” said Brendan Schulman, special counsel at the New York-based law firm Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel LLP.
There is no prohibition on flying drones for recreational use, but since 2007, the FAA has said they can’t be used for commercial uses.
AAI’s Irby addressed the issue of FAA approval in his statement after the Amazon story broke.
“Progress is being made by the Federal Aviation Administration and industry to define operational concepts, as well as regulatory policy and technology requirements needed for UAS integration into civilian non-segregated airspace,” Irby said.
“AAI Unmanned Aircraft Systems participates in several groups dedicated to this goal. We also are working to ensure our systems will meet future certification requirements.
Amazon’s plan spurred Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., to issue a statement Monday saying the machines should be vetted before they are used for delivery. Markey introduced the Drone Aircraft and Privacy Transparency Act last month, calling for measures to ensure drones aren’t used to spy on U.S. citizens.
“Before drones start delivering packages, we need the FAA to deliver privacy protections for the American public,” he said in the statement. “Convenience should never trump constitutional protections.”
Bloomberg and The Associated Press contributed to this article.