The FAA has granted permission to Amazon to conduct experiments with its proposed drone-based package delivery services that the online retailer has been eyeing for the last several years.
On March 19, the Federal Aviation Administration granted an Experimental Airworthiness Certificate (EAC) to Amazon that will allow the company to conduct more research into the proposed system so that it can be refined and explored as a potentially viable delivery system in the future.
The EAC will permit the company's Amazon Logistics division to experiment with unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) that Amazon will use for research and development and crew training, according to the FAA.
The EAC sets rules for the drone experiments, including provisions that all flight operations must be conducted at 400 feet or below during daylight hours in good weather and that the drones must always remain within visual line-of-sight of the pilot and observer. In addition, the drone experiments under the certificate must be flown by a pilot who has a minimum of a private pilot's certificate and current medical certification, the FAA stated.
The FAA also requires Amazon to provide monthly data to the agency under the EAC, including reports on 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 agency said it includes these reporting requirements in all UAS experimental airworthiness certificates.
Alison Duquette, a spokeswoman for the FAA, told eWEEK on March 20 that the agency has so far issued permission for 48 other projects that hope to use drones or similar unmanned aircraft designs for various tasks in the United States. Other proposed projects include tasks, such as aerial power line inspections, aerial agricultural inspections and more, she said.
The FAA is currently accepting public comments through April 24 on new rules it proposed back in February that would regulate such unmanned aircraft systems, including drones that are proposed for use by Amazon. The public comment period opened on Feb. 23.
"We're addressing small UASs first because that's where most of the interest lies," said Duquette. "That's where most people want to operate."
The 48 companies that have been granted permission for experiments by the FAA so far have received exemptions to begin their studies before the proposed new FAA rules are in place for UAS devices, she said.
So far, it is still early in the FAA's process to propose, review and finalize rules in the controversial area of drones. Critics of drones cite concerns about privacy, potential interference with commercial and private air traffic, terrorism worries and more, while supporters argue that drones could open new avenues of commerce, logistics and potential services that have not yet even been identified.
"We don't know when we will have the final rule out, but we are working to get it out as quickly as possible, based on the [public] comments" that are being received, said Duquette.
Back in December 2013, Amazon said it had begun working on a drone-based delivery system that it hoped to use in the next few years to deliver packages to customers' doorsteps in 30 minutes or less, according to an earlier eWEEK report. At the time, Amazon said those future deliveries could be made using what it called a "Prime Air Octocopter," which had four thin metal legs and eight small, horizontally spinning helicopter blades that made it look like a large robotic stink bug. The drone was about the size of a medium-size dog and grabbed and carried its package off to its destination, according to the company's description at the time.
Amazon predicted back then that it would be ready to set its Octocopters in flight by 2015, but it is still waiting for the FAA to create and finalize the rules that could one day enable such delivery methods.
Amazon did not immediately reply to an eWEEK request for comment about the FAA permit on March 20.
Under FAA rules, a small UAS must weigh less than 55 pounds, while there are also potential provisions for an additional, more flexible framework for "micro" UAS devices that weigh less than 4.4 pounds, according to the agency.
The proposed new rules also require operators to minimize risks to other aircraft and people and property on the ground by always watching for and avoiding manned aircraft. If there is a risk of collision, the UAS operator must be the first to maneuver away, the proposed rules state.
In addition, a UAS pilot must discontinue a flight when continuing would pose a hazard to other aircraft, people or property and will not be permitted to fly over people, except those directly involved with the flight. Flights would be limited to 500 feet altitude and no faster than 100 mph under the proposals.