It was the sort of only-in-California headline that was just plausible enough to be true: "Medical Marijuana Delivered by Flying Drones."
But flying drones aren't about to deliver anything — let alone marijuana.
"We are not delivering medical marijuana," confirmed QuiQui founder Joshua Ziering, who hopes his fleet of drones will one day be able to drop off prescription drugs. "I think [the International Business Times] just made it up."
Sensationalist headlines aside, Ziering's aspirations are serious — as are the hopes of many entrepreneurs who see drones as the technology behind a great new business model. Beer companies, florists, even major-league baseball teams — it seems no one can escape the appeal of flying robots.
But just because drones can bring you a six-pack or shoot some awesome spring training images doesn't mean they're allowed to do so.
Earlier this month, the Federal Aviation Administration briefly lost its ability to police the unmanned skies when a judge ruled it lacked the authority. But a day later, the agency appealed, and commercial drones are again grounded until the matter is settled.
That hasn't stopped companies who saw the temporary reprieve as an opening for their automated delivery plans — or at least a fun publicity stunt. Lakemaid Beer told National Journal it was resurrecting plans to work on a beer delivery system for ice fishermen. A Michigan florist, stung when its Valentine's Day delivery plan met the FAA's disapproval, wasted no time announcing it would resume testing.
Even the Washington Nationals took to the skies to get some preseason publicity shots.
While the FAA tries to clear up misperceptions over what the ruling and the appeal mean, the varied responses illustrate the confusion over just what businesses are allowed to do — and what the FAA can and will do to stop them.
"Commercial operations are only authorized on a case-by-case basis," the FAA's Elizabeth Cory said in an email last month. "A commercial flight requires a certified aircraft, a licensed pilot, and operating approval. To date, only one operation has met these criteria." That's an operation that uses drones to conduct environmental surveys in the Arctic prior to drilling.
But it's unclear just how many businesses have a full grasp of those guidelines. Some have argued their low-flying craft aren't breaking any laws — but the FAA's 400-foot limit is in place for hobbyists, not commercial users. Others are basing plans off the court decision, but not the FAA's appeal.
This confusion makes it harder for the agency to police the sky. While the FAA can shut down businesses whose drone plans make the news, it's nearly impossible to regulate companies who don't announce their presence.
"You have this choosy policing, and I think that's a waste of time," Ziering said. He would prefer to see drone operators come up with uniform, self-regulating standards, similar to the model airplane industry.
Currently, it seems the FAA is taking it easy on drone users who don't understand the rules. The beer company and the florist both received only polite warnings from the agency that their operations weren't allowed. In fact, the court case that led to the challenge of the FAA's authority is the only time it has tried to levy punishment (a $10,000 fine for reckless flying during a commercial shoot).
For now, Ziering says he realizes the drone revolution will have to wait on regulation, and that might be slow going. "I respect the FAA, and I respect the [National Transportation Safety Board]," he said. "Obviously, they're not ready for this to happen yet and we're going to try to respect that as much as possible." Still, he said, "this is gonna happen one way or another," and QuiQui wants to be ready when the rules become clear.
The FAA did not immediately respond to requests for comment.