We have been hearing talks of drone deliveries right at your doorstep within hours of delivering a product and you wouldn’t have to wait for days to get what you ordered – but this hasn’t become a reality yet. Why is that?
Danaya C. Wright says that property rights and privacy come into play here. People wouldn’t want drones to be flying above their houses every hour while they are having a quiet family time in the pool or over a barbecue. Wright postulates that even if we consider that property rights and privacy issues are catered to, and drone deliveries being, even if just 50% of the existing package deliveries start happening through drones then there would be over 5 billion drone flights per year.
That’s a staggering number compared to meager 16 million air flights per year that occur in the upper airspace. These flights do not bother us unless you live around the airport. However, drones flying above your houses would be a different matter altogether considering the 5 billion drone flights per year.
While it can be considered that existing roads be used as aerial pathways for drone deliveries, that would most probably not be feasible either considering the distraction factor. Drivers could be distracted by drones flying over their heads just a few feet away.
Wright says that history provides a valuable lesson when we look to the massive public infrastructure investments in the railroads and utility corridors of the 19th century. Updating our utility and transportation infrastructure to accommodate new technologies is sensible, environmentally sound and logistically workable. A drone highway over a railroad corridor is not a safety threat since a 200-ton locomotive beats a 20-lb drone every time.
This country thrived because we all invested in railroads and utilities and because we created a legal regime that facilitated cooperation between transportation and communications providers. Federal regulation of the airspace below 500 feet, state laws facilitating multi-modal uses of utility and transportation corridors, and judicial recognition of the unique property rights of railroads and other commercial easements could lead to a seamless and coordinated public transportation system that would decrease reliance on individual automobiles and reduce the environmental costs of using the internal combustion engine to deliver consumer goods that last mile.
And new technology can better protect private property rights by instantly depositing a small payment into individual landowners’ bank accounts whenever drones must traverse private land.
The legal barriers to a clean delivery technology are the product of the 20th century obsession with private property rights — rights that in no way reflect the legal protections for property that existed at the founding or even during the heyday of industrial expansion.
If we look to the important lessons of the rails-to-trails program, which repurposed inactive railroad corridors to multi-modal public trails and utility corridors, perhaps we can reinvest more wisely in our public infrastructure and you won’t have to wait another decade for Amazon’s lawyers to tell their engineers that it is safe to get your cell phone to you via drone.
Danaya C. Wright is the T. Terrell Sessums & Gerald Sohn Professor of Constitutional Law and director of the Center for Governmental Responsibility at the University of Florida.