Imagine an item that is shipped into Port Newark, then picked up by a drone and shipped to a local customer in Morris County.
The idea appears to be the logical next step in the ever-changing world of e-commerce — the greatest example yet of cutting out the middleman while expediting the delivery of goods.
And when Amazon showed such a delivery is possible last month in England, many wondered how quickly the process could come to New Jersey.
The answer: Not likely anytime soon.
Drone delivery, such as the type Amazon Prime Air offers — packages weighing 5 pounds or less, within 30 minutes by a drone without operator assistance — poses a challenge to the Federal Aviation Administration in New Jersey. And the restrictions posted by the FAA have a significant effect on the warehouse market that companies attempting to use drone delivery systems will consider.
Three international airports, Newark Liberty, La Guardia and JFK, and a heavily trafficked airspace stand in the way of drone delivery throughout the state and more than 20 million people in the greater New York City area.
But that’s not all. The state’s multitude of smaller regional aviation facilities, 25, also comes into play. That potential shipment from Port Newark to Dover would have to navigate the airspace of three airports.
So, despite the fact that Amazon has distribution centers in 10 different towns, six of which are located along the Interstate 95 corridor between New Brunswick and Paramus, such a program faces hurdles.
“Amazon is committed to collaborating with industry to help define standards in a way that will provide operators, manufacturers and policymakers with a clear understanding of what is needed to operate safely in the shared global airspace,” Amazon Prime Air said in its airspace access proposal.
The prospects are not much better in the less-congested spaces in the state, either.
Amazon does not have warehouses near Atlantic or Sussex counties.
Delivery to these areas from an out-of-state facility is also not legal under current FAA drone policy. And with the FAA’s drone restrictions and a congested airspace, companies capable of delivering space in isolated areas may stand to make significant profit in the already-booming industrial real estate market, provided that drone delivery is economically viable to begin with.
Last summer, the FAA implemented new restrictions on drone usage, from weight limits to operation and airspace restrictions.
These FAA provisions — although waivable — say drones only may be allowed to weigh 55 pounds at a time. In addition, the aircraft must be controlled by a pilot with initial aeronautical knowledge, and operate during daylight at a maximum of 100 miles per hour.
But these restrictions also limit the deployment of drones in heavily trafficked airspace. As it stands, drone use is limited by air traffic control on an individual basis in Class B airspace — near airports. This means that a pilot attempting to launch out of Elizabeth to Jersey City is severely limited by air traffic control out of Newark Liberty.
Similarly, if a pilot intends to reach Dover from Newark, they must coordinate with Air Traffic control out of three different air control units — Newark Liberty, Essex County and Morristown Municipal airports.
Jim Peters, a public affairs representative for the FAA in the Eastern region, said attempting to obtain access to the airspace over four different aviation facilities may be next to impossible.
Additionally, the FAA does not allow for fully automated drone operation, which means a pilot, while being capable of controlling more than one drone at a time, must be in control at all times. And drones must remain within visual-line-of-sight at all times.
Amazon’s Prime Air feature promises to deliver packages to customers in 30 minutes or less. Given the airspace of the North Jersey area and current FAA laws, Amazon said it has proposed a revision of airspace use.
A spokesperson for Amazon Prime Air said the company is developing drones that can sustain flight for over 10 miles, and stated that the goal of the program is to use drones that require no operator at all.
Peters said the FAA is trying to work with the company.
“We’re aware of Amazon’s operational concepts,” he said. “We’re currently working on proposed rules for flights over people and beyond line-of-sight operations.”
Under the current FAA policy, it is unlikely that drone delivery is economically viable, particularly in North Jersey.
A company offering drone delivery would have to be near a densely populated area and very far away from an airport in order for the delivery system to be economically viable. The company would also be limited to a 2.5-mile delivery radius (the distance to the horizon line in flat ground) in order to meet the visual-line-of-sight requirements.
As the rules stand, a drone delivery system might be economically viable for restaurants very far away from congested airspace, but not for companies with entire drone fleets.
But Amazon has developed a significant footprint in the industrial real estate market, adding more than 1.5 million square feet of warehouse space in the state for 2016 alone. The company has also said it plans to continue its expansion into the state, intending to hire up to 2,500 employees in the upcoming months.
Despite these restrictions, however, the FAA projects as many as 7 million drones will be registered by 2020. In 2016 alone, the administration saw over 670,000 drones registered. The FAA has also said it is open to revising its drone policy.
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