Ad-Carrying Drones Hover Over Mexican Highways

Could it happen here?

Starting this year, commuters in Mexico City have been interrupted as they drive, by flying robots. The sleek, black-and-white quadcopters carried signs, white with black writing, bearing simple slogans. The campaign was part of ridesharing app Uber’s aggressive expansion in the country. The ads, it appears, were part of an attempt to shame commuters out of driving alone.

Technology Review reports:

While Uber’s focus is on the ride-sharing app (UberPOOL in particular encourages people to hail a car already traveling along a route to their destination), my immediate concerns was the safety of the advertising campaign. The drones pictured look a lot like DJI Inspire models, which weigh 6.5 pounds and have a maximum flight time of around 18 minutes. (Reached for comment, DJI was unable to say if the drones in the picture were DJI models.) Mexico requires that pilots of light-sized drones, which includes DJI Inspire and any drone weighing between 4.5 and 55 pounds, have a permit unless operated at a flying club.

In addition to the permitting requirement, Mexico’s Aeronáutica Civil has specific safety rules for operating remotely piloted aircraft. Those rules include, among other criteria, that the drones cannot be operated out of a moving vehicle, and that drones should not be flown over places where 12 or more people have gathered. To get around these rules would likely take special permission.

Asked about advertising flights over traffic, the FAA replied by citing the specific law:

So if Uber were to try a similar promotion in the United States, that’s exactly what they’d need to do. “To operate over traffic,” says the FAA, “the operator would have to apply for a waiver of 107.39.”

Update: An Uber official, speaking on background, clarified that the company flew the drones over traffic briefly in July 2016, and that they have not flown drones over traffic in Mexico City since.

Kelsey D. Atherton

Kelsey D. Athertonis a defense technology journalist based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. His work on drones, lethal AI, and nuclear weapons has appeared in Slate, The New York Times, Foreign Policy, and elsewhere.