Law Alum, Navy Vet Helping Amazon Figure Out Drone Deliveries

Jeff Immel spent nearly 11 years in the Navy before coming to UVA, where he simultaneously earned an M.A. in history and a J.D. in 2012.
May 15, 2017

There is a chance that someday you will receive a package via drone, courtesy of Amazon Prime Air and Jeff Immel, a 2012 graduate of the University of Virginia School of Law who also earned a master’s degree in history from the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences. The former Navy pilot, who joined the Seattle-based company as counsel in November 2015, is helping to address legal challenges for drone delivery.

Amazon’s goal is to supplement its existing delivery fleet with drones, which the company hopes will be able to deliver packages weighing up to 5 pounds (between 80 and 90 percent of Amazon orders) in 30 minutes or less, if the customer lives within 10 miles of a warehouse.

The initial Amazon Prime Air trial deliveries were made in the United Kingdom last December, with the first customer receiving an Amazon Fire TV stick and a bag of popcorn.

Many more details still have to be worked out. Customers will need an Amazon-provided landing mat in their yard, which will help the drone determine where to land. And it may take awhile before service will be available to, say, apartment buildings. According to the company’s website, deliveries for the ongoing UK private customer trial are only being made during daylight hours and in good weather.

“Really, most of the interesting legal challenges derive from the fact that this is an entirely new concept that doesn’t fit easily within the traditional regulatory framework,” Immel said. “We are working toward operational rules that facilitate the enormous opportunities for innovation that drones present.”

Aviation has been his lifelong passion, and Immel has experience at the controls himself. A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, where he majored in physics, he went to flight school in Pensacola, Florida, and flew F-14 Tomcats from the deck of the USS Kitty Hawk on nearly 20 combat missions in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Returning to the U.S., he became a flight instructor in Virginia Beach until leaving the Navy for law school.

At UVA, Immel earned an M.A. in history in addition to his J.D. After graduation, he spent three years as an associate at Jones Day in Pittsburgh, also serving as chair of the aeronautical and space law section of the Pennsylvania Bar Association, before making the cross-country move to Seattle.

“I haven’t received a Prime Air delivery yet,” Immel said, “but you can bet I’ll be one of the first in line when the chance comes.”

–– Mark. F. Bernstein

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