But when Lakemaid Beer tried to use a drone to deliver six-packs to ice fishermen on a frozen lake 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 to government and aid organizations 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 that can replace truck deliveries of single packages. "If you look at the economic footprint and CO2 emissions," Raptopoulous said, the drone "beats the truck hands down."
Worldwide sales of military and civilian drones will reach an estimated $89 billion over the next decade, according to the Teal Group, an aerospace research company in Fairfax, Va. The FAA estimates as many as 7,500 small commercial drones will be in use within five years once the necessary regulations are in place.
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 a small drone could collide with a helicopter or small plane flown by a recreational pilot.
"It's a different culture in the U.S. and Canada," Williams said in an interview. "People believe they have the right to just jump in their airplane and fly just like they do their car. ... We can't set up a system that puts any of those folks at risk."
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.
"You could go off to the hobby shop, buy a little remote control helicopter and fly it to your heart's content," McDuffee said. "But if you hung a digital camera on that, took pictures of your neighbor's roof and sold those pictures to him or her, now you are in business and you're flying" an unmanned aircraft system.
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 because of economic pressures.
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. "Even a fairly small (drone), if the person flying this thing is unaware of their surroundings ... there could be very dire consequences."
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