Federal law does not yet clear the way for autonomous delivery vehicles, either by air or land. Some local governments are taking action.

Mike Montgomery, executive director, CALinnovates

Mike Montgomery, executive director, CALinnovates

For many of us, the thought of a Jetsons-like future where robots deliver pizza to our doors is still sci-fi. But the truth is that the technology to make that future real already exists and there are plenty of entrepreneurs jumping on the bandwagon. What’s holding this revolution back is a patchwork of regulations here in the U.S.

The industry is growing more quickly abroad. Flirtey, a company based in Reno, Nevada, is already helping deliver pizzas in New Zealand with its unmanned flying drones, while Amazon, DHL and Domino’s are delivering by drone across Europe. JD.com, the second-largest online retailer in China, started drone delivery last year. These companies are just having a hard time rolling out here.

That may be because on a national scale, the government’s involvement in regulating the drone industry has been less than encouraging. Last year the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) passed the so-called Part 107 rules, approving regulations for small, unmanned craft. But the rules do not address the most promising aspect of the drone market—fully autonomous drones and larger delivery vehicles including land-based drones.

Which is why it has now fallen to local governments to set their own regulations around robot delivery.

Both the supply and the demand are there. Now it’s up to legislators to make it easier, not harder, to deliver.

Nevada is one state that has been forward-thinking in this arena. In November, Flirtey partnered with 7-Eleven to deliver to customers in Reno. The company’s app allows users to shop, make purchases and then follow the drone as it is loaded, takes off and lands outside their door. The drones use specially designed cargo holders to deliver everything from snacks to medicines and, yes, even hot coffee and frozen Slurpees. The state has gone so far as to team up with NASA to be home base for testing unmanned aircraft systems’ traffic management technologies, which both delivery and agricultural drones use to navigate.

Other states, including Florida, Idaho, Virginia and Wisconsin, have passed laws allowing unmanned wheeled vehicles to use streets and sidewalks. Earlier this month, Ohio joined their ranks, passing legislation to allow unmanned delivery vehicles moving at less than 10 miles per hour, from companies like Starship Technologies, to access public sidewalks and crosswalks. All five states have similar laws, with drone weight limits varying from 50 to 90 pounds.

But that’s only five states. No one else is even considering drone legislation, though CALinnovates will soon unveil its federal policy proposal.

The difference in regulations can get down to the city level. Concord, a small city northeast of San Francisco, recently ruled that Starship Technologies robots can make local deliveries. But San Francisco, a crowded city that could benefit significantly from a reduction in traffic and pollution, is pondering a law against drones, citing safety concerns.


We need to get smarter about how we regulate and encourage these kinds of new delivery services. A third of online shoppers think drones are a good idea, and two-thirds think drones will be in widespread use by 2020. Henry Harris-Burland, of Starship Technologies, estimates that about 80 percent of online sales could be delivered by drone, and various studies say the cost per delivery could be as low as 24 cents. In other words, both the supply and the demand are there. Now it’s up to legislators to make it easier, not harder, to deliver.

Some tech companies have attempted to take the lead here. Starship Technologies helped craft laws in Ohio to make its delivery robots legal, and the company helped pass Washington, D.C.’s Personal Delivery Device Pilot Act in 2016.

But legislation shouldn’t be left up to the companies that will benefit from it. We need smart federal legislation to control and encourage this new field. Since the technology is so new, it’s important that the government take a light touch and allow entrepreneurs to flourish. But there need to be basic rules of the road that everyone can follow no matter what state they’re in.

We’re on the cusp of an exciting future where delivery will be easier and cheaper. It’s up to government officials to help make that future happen today.


CALinnovates is a technology advocacy coalition of tech companies, founders, funders and nonprofits.