Drones and the Post Office…A Match?

Beyond visual line of sight package delivery has been promoted as the “holy grail” of UAS technology. Major players have devoted enormous amounts of time and effort into creating the missing technological pieces. At the same time, armies of lobbyists have been deployed to try to get the Congress to speed up, or in some cases, completely circumvent, the FAA and its time consuming, methodical rulemaking process.

Based on all of this work, it was surprising to hear that the United States Postal Service Office of Inspector General is taking a hard look at the entire premise. The following paragraph was slipped into the middle of a lengthy “Fact Sheet,” issued by the White House earlier this month, entitled “New Commitments to Accelerate the Safe Integration of Unmanned Aircraft Systems:” 

Exploring the public’s views on using unmanned aircraft for the delivery of mail or packages: Technological innovation is rapidly transforming what is possible in the world of delivery. One of the innovations that is gaining extensive attention is delivery by unmanned aircraft, but to date little research has been done on public support for the concept. Today, the United States Postal Service Office of Inspector General is announcing its intention to publish new findings and analysis on the public’s rapidly-evolving opinion of drone delivery as a potential future logistics technology. Several topics are covered in the study, including the opinion of survey respondents to unmanned aircraft delivery’s overall appeal, its most and least compelling applications, the believability of claims about its potential benefits, the public’s expected timeframe for implementation of operations, potential downsides of the proposed technology, and how the public would view drone delivery if it were offered by the U.S. Postal Service and a small collection of other interested organizations.

As the August 29th implimentation date for Part 107 draws ever closer, now is probably the best time for this type of study. Often times, everyone associated with an industry, including lawyers, get caught up in the exciting question of whether or not something can be done. Will the technology work? What laws need to be changed? What are the possibilities? Sometimes the more fundamental question of whether it should be done slips through the cracks.

At the end of the day, package delivery is a service. It is a very important service that virtually everyone in the United States relies on in one way or another on a daily basis. If “on demand” drone package deliver is not something the public has interest in, then no matter how good the technology is and how accommodating the regulators are, the entire endeavor fails. Regardless of its utility, if people find the service annoying or intrusive, or the reality of the service does not match the hyped expectations, it will never meet its true potential.

Of course, the last massive technological and regulatory challenge faced by the Post Office was the rise of private package delivery companies such as UPS and FedEx, which ultimately captured the most lucrative parts of the business. The results of the study may show us how the Postal Service will respond to this new challenge. Will the study be used as an excuse to do nothing, or provide a justification to leap into the market with ever resource it can muster? We will all know the answer soon.

Originally posted August 15, 2016

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