Amazon Wants Early Permission to Launch its Delivery Drones

Just don’t expect one at your front porch anytime soon.

National Journal
Alex Brown
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Alex Brown
July 11, 2014, 7:45 a.m.

Amazon says its much-hyped de­liv­ery drones are ready to hit the skies, and the com­pany is ask­ing the FAA for per­mis­sion to be­gin test­ing out­doors with flights near Seattle.

But it’s still too soon to ex­pect the fly­ing ro­bots to re­place de­liv­ery trucks for a while.

At present, all com­mer­cial drone flights are banned, and the Fed­er­al Avi­ation Ad­min­is­tra­tion has been stingy with ex­emp­tions. Last month, the agency an­nounced it was con­sid­er­ing pro­pos­als by film com­pan­ies to use drones on their sets. The com­pan­ies’ ex­emp­tion re­quests high­lighted the con­tained nature of the shoots, and FAA spokes­man Les Dorr em­phas­ized that the agency would con­sider al­low­ing op­er­a­tions in “con­trolled, low-risk situ­ations.”

Amazon’s ex­emp­tion pro­pos­al takes great care to fall in­to those para­met­ers — mean­ing its drones won’t be buzz­ing any­where near your neigh­bor­hood.

“The op­er­a­tions will be con­duc­ted in a con­fined area over isol­ated Amazon private prop­erty,” reads the doc­u­ment, far away from “any densely pop­u­lated areas.” In ad­di­tion, Amazon said the drones will be with­in the line of site of test­ing per­son­nel at all times, and op­er­at­ors will be FAA-cer­ti­fied private pi­lots.

The com­pany’s cau­tion ex­tends to its flight area, which it says will be geo-fenced to keep drones in tight para­met­ers. Pi­lots will also have a but­ton that im­me­di­ately forces a land­ing if com­mu­nic­a­tion is lost or a situ­ation re­quires it for safety reas­ons.

Amazon re­vealed in its pe­ti­tion that its drones can fly in ex­cess of 50 mph.

For now, Amazon is con­duct­ing its test­ing in­doors, and it plans to make use of the six drone test­ing sites the FAA has es­tab­lished across the coun­try. The com­pany’s pe­ti­tion says it would be “im­prac­tic­al” to lim­it its flights to those areas.

Some have spec­u­lated that large com­pan­ies may prefer to avoid the pub­lic test­ing sites to keep their tech­no­logy out of com­pet­it­ors’ view.

From a policy stand­point, Con­gress has dir­ec­ted the FAA to make rules for com­mer­cial drone in­teg­ra­tion by late next year. But a re­cent In­spect­or Gen­er­al re­port casts doubts on the agency’s like­li­hood of meet­ing that date, say­ing it’s far be­hind sched­ule on al­most all of its dead­lines.

“While it is cer­tain that FAA will ac­com­mod­ate [Un­manned Air­craft Sys­tems] op­er­a­tions at lim­ited loc­a­tions, it is un­cer­tain when and if full in­teg­ra­tion of UAS in­to the [Na­tion­al Air­space Sys­tem] will oc­cur,” said the re­port.

So even if Amazon gets the go-ahead to start test­ing its drones — and the com­pany’s tech­no­logy gets ready to start de­liv­er­ing — it could be a while be­fore the reg­u­la­tions needed to al­low com­mer­cial op­er­a­tions catch up.

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