If the Monday morning reactions are right, Louisville and the surrounding area might be a good testing ground for Amazon Prime Air, the same-day delivery service the online retailer previewed Sunday.
There are a handful of Amazon warehouses nearby, including Shepherdsville and Jeffersonville. And the range of the drones will be limited, likely to 10 miles at first. And as Quartz outlines, delivery drones may be difficult to use in dense urban areas. Louisville could provide ample space for deliveries.
But even if drones could easily fly short distances to suburban homes, it’s not clear they will be allowed to. The FAA is going to revise (read: create) its policies for commercial drones in 2015. Here’s what would have to change:
Federal Approval for Commercial Drones
Federal airspace exists somewhere above most of America. The Supreme Court has ruled that property rights don’t extend infinitely into the sky, but there’s no set line for where your property ends and federal airspace begins.
If the drones are to fly in federal airspace, the FAA will have to regulate how Amazon is allowed to do so. This could be done. Commercial drone delivery already exists in Australia.
Where Do They Land?
The video previewing Prime Air shows a drone dropping off a package on a happy shopper’s patio. But not so fast.
“You can’t just land a helicopter anyplace,” says Allen Gailor, a local aviation attorney. “You think you can legally land in a backyard?”
Gailor says no matter what the size—”one inch or two miles”—a commercial aircraft can’t touch down in someone’s yard, and that’s another federal regulation that will have to change.
Can My Neighbor Shoot It Down?
Below much of the federal airspace (though not technically adjacent) is private property. As the Supreme Court has ruled, property owners control the space above their land to the degree they may reasonable use it. And once it’s cleared up where these drones can land, it could be difficult to determine how they land.
Unless the drones could drop straight down from federal airspace to your house, they will likely have to cross someone else’s property. Without a revision to regulations, that could qualify as trespassing or nuisance.
“People sue air boards all the time,” notes Gailor. Noise and pollution suits are common, and we’ve seen plenty of debate over whether the FAA can and should trim trees around Bowman Field.
But even if the drones aren’t directly trespassing, bothered neighbors who say aerial package delivery interferes with the enjoyment of their property could bring a nuisance case.
“If these flights are so low, they’re irritating, it could be a nuisance, even if it’s not a trespass. A nuisance doesn’t involve a physical invasion of a property,” says Lars Smith at the University of Louisville.
Randal Strobo, an Attorney with W. H. Graddy & Associates says this:
Under the law of nuisance, generally, Amazon could also be held liable for entering your property if that entry causes a substantial interference with the use and enjoyment of your property. While there do exist height requirements for aircrafts to legally enter your property, courts generally do not find liability under nuisance for aircrafts entering your property unless the entry substantially interferes with that use and enjoyment. This is generally the theory plaintiffs use to sue airports and airport expansion, the noise and vibrations from aircrafts substantially interfere with your property rights.
What If It Falls On Me?
No delivery method is perfect. Drones can crash. So what if it crashes into your house? Or into you?
“Amazon could be held liable for damage a crashed drone causes your property,” says Strobo. “Amazon could also be held liable for entering your property without your permission if it causes a substantial interference with the use and enjoyment of your property, whether it causes physical damage or not (e.g. noise, vibration, annoyance, etc.).”
Could This Happen?
There’s already some speculation that Amazon could face a fight from the companies that currently help move the company’s goods. UPS also spends millions lobbying. But UPS isn’t opposed to drone delivery outright.
Mike Mangeot, a company spokesman, says this:
Drones are really part of a bigger discussion about innovation in consumer choice. As e-commerce grows ever larger — B2C (business to customer) shipping now comprises 40% of UPS shipping volume — consumers want a say in how, when and where they receive their shipments. To best serve UPS customers, we continue to refine our services and operating methods.
Let’s Say the Feds Clear the Way, When Can I Get My Package?
So it’s 2015 and the FAA has addressed all of the above issues. Your box of sea salt is waiting at the Jeffersonville fulfillment center. Will a fancy new drone bring it to you? Maybe not, if this bill clears the Kentucky General Assembly. It would only allow the military and law enforcement agencies to use drones in the commonwealth.