The Pizza Delivery Gap

While Russian President Vladimir Putin is giving NATO the willies in the Ukraine, another threat has been flying under the radar that could rival Sputnik and the race to space: Russia may be significantly ahead of the U.S. in the race for drone supremacy.

We aren’t referring to unmanned military aircraft; the U.S. has a comfortable lead over the Russians in that. We mean the next inevitable thing: commercial applications of drone technology.

More specifically, the delivery of pizza by drone has already been tested successfully in Moscow and the northern Russian city of Syktyvkar. DoDo Pizza in the latter market is flexing competitive muscles, as it promises delivery to your house within 60 minutes, or your rubles back.

The helicopter drone is fitted with GPS and video cameras that are monitored by the restaurant’s manager, who gives customers a phone call at the time of delivery and makes sure it doesn’t get intercepted. The boxed pizza is lowered to the customer using a cable.

If America doesn’t get going, the Russians could soon have a monopoly on the industry, and we could be getting our pizza delivered by Russian-made helicopter drones with the DoDo logo or “Death to NATO” emblazoned on the wing.

This is why the announcement on Sunday of the Federal Aviation Administration’s new rule book for automated flight in the U.S. was so important. Within two years, Americans can expect to look up into the sky and see drones — squadrons of them — made in America by thousands of businesses.

The FAA’s proposed system would make civilian unmanned flight widely accessible. Real estate agents, aerial photographers, law enforcement officers and farmers would be required to pass a written proficiency test, register the drone and pay about $200 in fees — but would not need a regular pilot’s license or demonstrate their flying skills.

While the competition in places like Russia and India (a pizzeria in Mumbai was actually the first to demonstrate that unmanned delivery is not an oxymoron) has flown into the lead, the FAA officials have taken several years to get the regulatory plans off the drawing board. Staff shortages are blamed for some missed deadlines along the way.

But this is one time we will not squawk about the slow pace of lawmaking in Washington. The long-anticipated “revolution” in automated flight is fraught with hazard, both to public safety and to individual privacy. Drones have been rather accident-prone; and the level of risk acceptable in a combat zone is not acceptable in civilian areas. The experts have been drafting precautions, doing their best to foresee what problems will arise, as they invariably do in a whole new sector such as this.

Accordingly, the FAA ordains that drones will be allowed to deliver pizza and other delights only during daylight hours. In addition, they will have to stay within eyesight of the operator or observers posted on the ground. Business leaders were not happy to hear that, since it will put severe limits on delivery ranges, though as the technology proves itself, the restrictions will presumably be relaxed.

Drone speed will not exceed 100 mph, and they’ll be relegated to flight paths under 500 feet, to reduce the danger of colliding with other aircraft. There’s also the danger of the UAV’s falling out of the sky on somebody’s head. A demo drone in flight during a House Science subcommittee meeting on unmanned aircrafts plunked itself onto the carpet to general mirth (though it flew okay on the second try).

As for the potential for mischief in unsupervised surveillance, civil libertarians shudder to consider. But the White House has been duly worrying about the privacy issue.

In an impressive show of inter-agency coordination, on Sunday, the same day as the FAA announcement, a presidential directive was also issued that will require federal authorities for the first time to publicly disclose where they fly drones and what benign or malign things they do with the data collected from aerial surveillance.

This is no mere footnote. The Defense Department and law enforcement agencies are already heavily into drone use. The Department of Homeland Security deploys drones to patrol the nation’s borders. The FBI has been notably close-mouthed about its drone operations, and it will be interesting to see what disclosures are pried out from there under the new directive.

It will take a while longer before we hear the words, “You’re drone has arrived!” But when we do, at least we will feel a lot more confident that our pizza will have made it in one piece.