New Federal Aviation Administration rules will make it easier for Walmart Inc. and other retailers to expand their use of drones to deliver goods to customers.
One of the two regulations will allow the unmanned devices to fly over people and at night without a waiver, which will greatly increase opportunities for retail deliveries.
The second rule requires remote identification technology that can broadcast vital data to authorities instead of disseminating it through the internet. This will allow drones to operate in areas without internet access.
The FAA said in a news release Monday that it has submitted both rules to the Federal Register, which is expected to publish them in January. They will take effect 60 days after publication.
FAA Administrator Steve Dickson said the new rules address safety and privacy concerns regarding the use of drones. “They get us closer to the day when we will more routinely see drone operations such as the delivery of packages,” he said.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, who oversees the FAA, added that the rules will speed innovations in drone technology.
Drones are the fastest-growing sector in transportation, with more than 1.7 million drone registrations and 203,000 FAA-certified remote pilots, the federal agency said in the release.
Walmart began testing drone delivery of groceries and household goods in Fayetteville, N.C., in September. The same month, the Bentonville retailer said that it will start drone delivery of health and wellness products from a Walmart store near its headquarters in early 2021.
Then later in September, the company started a pilot project in North Las Vegas, Nev., that uses drones to deliver covid-19 self-collection test kits to customers’ homes. Walmart added the community of Cheektowaga, N.Y., to the program in October.
The company said that if the trials are successful, it will look to expand the use of drones to other areas.
Walmart worked with Israeli drone delivery firm Flytrex for the North Carolina test. Flytrex drones can carry up to 6.6 pounds for 3.5 miles, cruising at 32 mph at an altitude of 230 feet.
Items are packed into the drone’s delivery box, and customers use an app to approve delivery when the device reaches the backyard. A wire release mechanism then gently lowers the box from a height of 80 feet.
Other retailers are exploring the use of drones. Walmart‘s e-commerce rival Amazon.com got approval from the FAA in August to test its drone delivery service Amazon Prime Air. Amazon hasn’t said yet where or when it will start testing.
Pharmacy chain Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc. made the first U.S. drone delivery in October 2019. Walgreens uses Wing Aviation Co., owned by Google parent company Alphabet Inc., to deliver over-the-counter medications and snack foods in Christiansburg, Va.
And a subsidiary of UPS Inc. called UPS Flight Forward made its first delivery using a drone for CVS Health Corp. in November 2019.
The Small UAV Coalition, an industry trade group, had a mixed reaction to the new FAA rules. UAV stands for unmanned aerial vehicles.
The group said in a statement that it welcomes the rule authorizing drone operations at night without a waiver. And while it supports the creation of a new category for certified drone users that gives them broader authority to operate over people, the coalition called the rule’s risk methodology “unduly restrictive.”
But the group’s biggest concern with the regulations is the requirement to use only broadcast technology for remote identification. “The FAA missed the opportunity to adopt a flexible, technology-neutral approach to remote ID by allowing both broadcast and network technology,” the coalition said.
Coalition members include Amazon Prime Air and Alphabet’s Wing Aviation. The group’s website states that drones “will transform our economy in a multitude of ways,” including fast and environmentally friendly consumer delivery.