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Paul Misener, Amazon’s vice president of global innovation policy and communications, speaks at the CES show in Las Vegas. (GeekWire Photo / Monica Nickelsburg)

A patchwork of state laws governing drone operations would pose a “real problem” for aerial delivery systems like the one that Amazon is developing, one of the executives in charge of the company’s drone program says.

Paul Misener, Amazon’s vice president of global innovation policy and communications, discussed the regulatory issues facing delivery drones today during a panel at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

Amazon began using drones to make deliveries to a handful of customers in England last month, and the Seattle-based company is expected to ramp up U.S. drone operations in the next couple of years.

Regulatory issues are key to the deployment of drones: British aviation authorities are letting Amazon’s autonomous drones fly beyond the operator’s visual line of sight, but the regulations recently issued by the Federal Aviation Administration don’t yet go quite that far.

Misener agreed with the other panelists – including the FAA’s Marke “Hoot” Gibson and Matt Hancock, Britain’s digital minister – that it’s best to have global consistency in commercial drone regulations. But he said it would be “adequate” to have consistency within large regions of the world – for example, within the U.S. or within Europe.

“If those two had some differences, I think that would be OK,” Misener said. “Where it would be a problem is if Texas had a rule that Arkansas didn’t, or if Belgium had a rule that France didn’t.”

Those kinds of inconsistencies would “cause all sorts of cross-border delivery problems,” he said.

“Here in the U.S., we’ve seen a proliferation of state bills that could affect the ability of entrepreneurs or larger enterprises to conduct business across state borders,” Misener said. “And that makes no sense at all. The FAA has been in charge of the airspace for safety. … For states to step in at this point would be a real problem.”

Misener’s comments in Las Vegas came even as legislators in Washington state were preparing to consider a bill that could limit or even ban unauthorized drone flights over private property. State lawmakers have proposed drone legislation six times before in the past two years, but none of those bills ever made it to a full floor vote in either chamber of the Legislature.

Today’s panelists said privacy and security are likely to be hot topics in the years ahead. “It is something very important for this industry to take into account,” Hancock said. “In the public debate about drones, it’s really important to get this right.”

The FAA will focus on privacy and security during its second annual drone symposium, scheduled in March near Washington, D.C. “Security is becoming more of a conversation now,” said Gibson, the FAA’s senior adviser on unmanned aircraft system integration.

Although the U.S. and Britain are hot spots for drone development, other parts of the world are also trying to keep up with the rapid rise of robotic fliers. In Mexico, for example, drones are playing a part in drug trafficking as well as political shenanigans.

It’s challenging for governments to match the pace of technological change, said Jaime Reyes Robles, secretary of innovation, science and technology for Mexico’s Jalisco state government.

“Government is increasingly slow,” he said.

Meanwhile, in Singapore, authorities are preparing for a grand experiment in drone traffic control, drawing upon such technologies as geofencing, virtual lanes for air travel and autonomous detect-and-avoid systems.

“They’ve come up with a model that we’ll be piloting in 2018. … I’m really excited to see that come about, and how that’s implemented,” said Jessie Mooberry, chief operating officer for a Singapore-based startup called SwarmX.

 

The FAA is working with NASA and other agencies to develop a similar traffic management system for unmanned aircraft systems. Amazon already has proposed a detailed plan, and Gibson said the effort is finally picking up steam.

“There was a great reluctance when I first showed up at the FAA … because it had to do with roles and missions, if you will, and delegation and those kinds of things,” he said. “Fast forward about 15 months now, and it’s really fascinating to see how many people, even in my own building, have gotten religion.”

Misener said working out a traffic management system for drones ranks as one of the FAA’s most important projects. “It absolutely has to be done,” he said.

So where will Amazon’s drones make their next deliveries? When that question was posed at the end of today’s session, Misener gave a playful answer.

“Well, I think we already have an invitation from the minister,” he said.

“I’ll give you my address,” Minister Hancock replied, amid laughter.

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