In Japan, the Yamaha Motor Company’s RMAX helicopter drones have been spraying crops for 20 years. The radio-controlled drones weighing 140 pounds are cheaper than hiring a plane and are able to more precisely apply fertilizers and pesticides. The helicopters went into use five years ago in South Korea, and last year in Australia.
Television networks use drones to cover cricket matches in Australia. Zookal, a Sydney company that rents textbooks to college students, plans to begin delivering books via drones later this year. The United Arab Emirates has a project underway to see if government documents like driver’s licenses, identity cards and permits can be delivered using small drones.
In the United Kingdom, energy companies use drones to check the undersides of oil platforms for corrosion and repairs, and real estate agents use them to shoot videos of pricey properties. In a publicity stunt, a Domino’s Pizza franchise posted a YouTube video of a “DomiCopter” drone flying over fields, trees, and homes to deliver two pizzas.
But when Lakemaid Beer tried to use a drone to deliver six-packs to ice fishermen in Minnesota, the FAA grounded the “brewskis.”
Andreas Raptopoulous, CEO of Matternet in Menlo Park, Calif., predicts that in the near term, there will be more extensive use of drones in impoverished countries than in wealthier nations such as the U.S. He sees a market for drones to deliver medicines and other critical, small packaged goods to the 1 billion people around the globe who don’t have year-round access to roads.
Later this year, Matternet plans to start selling a package that includes a drone and two landing pads. On the return trip, the drones can carry blood samples bound for labs and other packages.
Germany’s express delivery company Deutsche Post DHL is testing a “Paketkopter” drone that could be used to deliver small, urgently needed goods in hard-to-reach places. Facebook is in talks to buy Titan Aerospace, a maker of solar-powered drone-like satellites, to step up its efforts to provide Internet access to remote parts of the world.
There is also a strong business case for urban drones. “If you look at the economic footprint and CO2 emissions,” Raptopoulous said, the drone “beats the truck hands down.”
Jim Williams, head of the FAA’s drone office, said writing rules for the U.S. is more complex than other nations. The U.S. has far more air traffic than anywhere else and a greater variety of aircraft, from hot air balloons and old-fashioned barnstormers to the most sophisticated airliners and military and business jets. At low altitudes, the concern is that a small drone could collide with a helicopter or small plane flown by a recreational pilot.
Yet the FAA permits hobbyists to fly model aircraft that have so improved in technology that they’re little different from small drones. The FAA has issued voluntary guidelines for hobbyists, including staying away from airports, flying no higher than 400 feet and staying within the line of sight of the operator.
Sean Cassidy, senior vice president at the Air Line Pilots Association, said he worries that commercial drone users will be less willing than hobbyists to abide by restrictions.
Drones are “becoming so prevalent and affordable that something has to be done to make sure they’re not being used in a reckless manner,” he said. “There could be very dire consequences.”<< previous 1 2 3