Don't count your Amazon drones before they fly

Federal judge dismisses FAA ban on commercial drone use, but issues still stand in the way of U.S. airspace opening for business

The FAA's de facto ban against the commercial use of low-altitude drones has been struck down, a move that in theory kicks open the doors for everything from Jeff Bezos's speculative drone-delivery scheme to third-party door-to-door courier services.

But don't expect drones to start buzzing past your window anytime soon, as the FAA ban wasn't the only obstacle to such proposals.

As reported by Motherboard, a judge with the National Transportation Safety Board decided to dismiss Pirker v. Huerta, a case where drone operator Raphael Pirker was fined $10,000 by the FAA for using a drone as part of a commercial he was filming. Administrative Law Judge Patrick Geraghty ruled that the agency had never made the drone ban enforceable as part of any formal rule-making process, and he dismissed the fine against Pirker.

The FAA's been grappling with the issue of increasing use of low-altitude drones, and had intended to rule on the matter by year end. Many other drone users have been warned informally, but Pirker was the first person to actually be fined.

A great many entrepreneurs and industry spokespeople are already lining up to take advantage of the ruling. Dronehire.org, a company that provides "an international directory of civilian drone/UAV operators for hire," celebrated the ruling and declared U.S. airspace "open for business." Research from drone-advocacy group AUVSI claims the ban on drones costs the country billions in lost business and uncreated jobs. And an outfit named Skymail is planning to create a network of door-to-door delivery drones to "[revolutionize] the way physical goods are shipped today."

But elation by drone users and makers over this ruling is tempered by several other issues.

First is whether the FAA will bring the case to the U.S. Court of Appeals and attempt to uphold its 2007 ban on commercial drone use. That process is likely to take months at the very least, and in the meantime the FAA could issue an emergency rule against the use of drones as a stopgap.

The second issue is how others may react to the ruling -- that is, whether townships, counties, or entire states may ban the commercial use of low-altitude drones out of fears about privacy violations or safety issues. Such problems were foremost in the mind of InfoWorld's Bill Snyder when he called drone delivery "so patently hazardous to have who knows how many of those things buzzing around your neighborhood that it's not worth arguing about."

Another related issue is the level of automation for such drones in the short term. Google's self-driving cars notwithstanding, a human pilot of some kind will most likely be mandatory for drones as one of the rules for their wider use -- especially if those drones turn out to be a hacking target as well as a physical safety concern.

This story, "Don't count your Amazon drones before they fly," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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