It’s a bird, no, it’s a plane, no, it’s … an Amazon delivery-drone?

by Katelyn DeRuyter, UMN Law Student, MJLST Note and Comment Editor

I recently typed “legal issues drone usage” into Google and was surprised by what I found. Along with several articles on the U.S.’s drone program (as expected), I was also greeted by reports of an Amazon project to have unmanned aerial drones make deliveries. For those who don’t know, Amazon is an online retailer of … well, almost everything. This drone project, first announced on CBS’ ’60 Minutes’, is called “Prime Air” and may be viable in as few as 4-5 years. While there is wide speculation over whether this project is real or just a publicity stunt, it does present some interesting legal and law-enforcement considerations.

First, the reported facts:

The drones would be autonomous, meaning they would not be remotely piloted. Rather, the small rotorcrafts would use GPS technology to travel to and from delivery addresses. The drones currently being tested have a range of 10 miles and can lift packages weighing up to 5 lbs. Such packages account for approximately 86% of Amazon’s deliveries. It is easy to see the business advantages of such a delivery program. However, is this program currently legal?

The Legal Landscape:

Police and various governmental organizations are allowed to fly drones as long as they have obtained FAA approval. Non-governmental use of drones is limited to hobbyists and there are strict restrictions. For example, hobby drones cannot go above 400 feet and must stay within the operator’s sight. This will soon change. In early 2012, Congress passed the Reauthorization Act, a $63 billion funding bill for 4 years of FAA funding. One of the provisions of this Act is that the FAA must allow for the wider use of drones for both governmental and commercial use. Specifically, the FAA must allow for commercial use of drones by Sept. 30, 2015.

Given the Reauthorization Act, it seems probable that Amazon’s Prime Air, and other similar programs, may soon be legal. However, are such programs advisable? Along with potential liability issues if the drones malfunction and cause injury, there are broader policy issues to be addressed.

Law Enforcement Challenges:

The ability for drone deliveries may be a vast complication for law enforcement. By cutting out USPS, FedEx, UPS and other more “traditional” shipping methods, drone deliveries may also circumvent a lot of the screening and tracking that occurs with shipping. These screening and tracking systems are vital to law enforcement’s efforts to detect, stop and prosecute a variety of crimes – spanning from drug trafficking to bioterrorism.

If the law enforcement hurdles can be overcome, and I think it is likely that they can, drone-deliveries will probably become commonplace. It will be interesting to watch how the law adapts to fit this evolving technology.

Please feel free to leave any comments and thoughts!