Amazon Drones On Unconvincingly

Book that flight, Amazon.

Photographer: Martin Divisek/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The Federal Aviation Administration, in its long, often thankless quest to impose order on the burgeoning drone business, has finally proposed some new rules for commercial operators. The agency is showing restraint, flexibility and an openness to innovation. It still isn't pleasing everyone.

Amazon.com, in particular, is put out. "The FAA needs to begin and expeditiously complete the formal process to address the needs of our business, and ultimately our customers," said Paul Misener, an Amazon vice president. Then he made a not-so-veiled threat to move the company's drone operations overseas, where it could find "the regulatory support we need."

Domesticating Drones

That expresses a novel view, to put it mildly, of the relationship between a regulator and the regulated. At any rate, his comments are both premature and misguided.

The FAA's proposal would prohibit flying drones outside an operator's line of sight and near crowds. This would seem to rule out Amazon's much-hyped (though still theoretical) drone delivery service, to be called Prime Air. But there's no cause for panic.

For one thing, the FAA's primary responsibility is public safety, not Amazon's bottom line. Surely it's reasonable for a regulator to think twice before allowing thousands of flying mechanical objects, laden with retail goods, to buzz through the urban grid.

Besides, the technology required to make Prime Air a reality remains in its infancy. After studying the issue, the FAA concluded that the ability of a flying drone to "see and avoid" other objects -- a critical determinant of its safety -- remains a long way from prime time, a view that's pretty close to noncontroversial in the industry. If Amazon has resolved that engineering riddle, great: It can demonstrate it to the FAA.

More to the point, the FAA has said it will issue waivers to companies that can prove their systems can be operated safely. And it's open to revisiting the rules in the future. So Amazon's statement sounds more like generic resistance to government oversight, not opposition to these rules in particular.

Amazon is right that the FAA should move faster. Putting the drone rules in place is expected to take years, which is excessive even by federal bureaucratic standards. But the agency is bringing some order to what otherwise might become an anarchic -- and dangerous -- frontier. Amazon will have to follow the rules like everyone else.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.