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FAA Approval of Amazon Drone Testing May Be Too Little, Too Late

FAA Approval of Amazon Drone Testing May Be Too Little, Too Late
Madeleine Coe

On March 19, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued an experimental airworthiness certificate to Amazon, allowing the company to test its delivery drones outdoors in the United States. Unfortunately, due to the slow pace of the FAA’s decision-making, the prototype for which Amazon originally filed is already obsolete and the company has been testing overseas during the wait. Although this is a small step in the right direction for Amazon’s dream of autonomous drone delivery, it may still be years until we see Amazon delivering packages via air, at least in the U.S.

“Nowhere outside of the United States have we been required to wait more than one or two months to begin testing,” said Paul Misener, Amazon’s vice president of global public policy, in a written testimony to the Senate Subcommittee on Aviation Operations, Safety and Security.

The issued certificate only applied to a specific prototype, so any advances made while testing would require Amazon to apply for a new permit for each new prototype. According to Misener, Amazon recently applied for permission to begin testing on an improved drone system with hopes for a quicker turnaround time.

Under this certificate, Amazon must submit monthly data to the FAA, detailing “the number of flights conducted, pilot duty time per flight, unusual hardware or software malfunctions, any deviations from air traffic controllers’ instructions, and any unintended loss of communication links.”

The certificate also stipulates that Amazon conduct flights during daylight at 400 feet or below in clear weather and remain within the operator’s/observer’s visual line-of-sight. Drone operators are required to have a private pilot’s license and current medical certification. However, these rules are nothing new to anyone following the drone-regulation soap opera in the United States.

The certificate issued indicates that these restrictions would apply for the research, development and crew-training phase, so there is a possibility that the visibility regulations could be lifted or lightened if the data collected shows that drones can safely operate as intended. But, the current restrictions still put operations in the US far behind testing internationally.

The question still remains, how is Amazon going to pull off drone delivery if it can’t fly outside of the operator’s visual line of sight, over people, or “allow any object to be dropped” from the drone? And, more importantly, how can we make strides in the commercial drone industry if the FAA continues to treat many commercial ventures that apply for these testing waivers like an overprotective parent treats a rebellious teenager, further delaying innovation and progress?

Even if permission for testing more advanced drone models moves forward, how is Amazon going to create a delivery system as efficient as their current methods of traditional delivery? Under current restrictions, the task of developing a drone delivery system to service the U.S. seems impossible. It is important to keep in mind that commercial drone usage must not only be safely operable and technologically sound, but also economically sensible if Amazon intends to use drones for timely and cost-effective delivery.

Many are lobbying for a change in the way that the FAA dispenses drone-testing permission, but it seems as if innovation has shifted abroad for the time being. Are we finally on our way to a drone-zoned marketplace? Or, will the U.S. miss out?

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