FAA Permits Amazon to Test-Fly Delivery Drones With Usual Restrictions

NEWS ANALYSIS: Amazon.com gets a permit to test its delivery drones, but the company must follow the same rules as anyone who wants to fly a new aircraft.

Amazon Drones 2

Amazon has taken one important step toward realizing its corporate dream of automating same-day delivery of products to customers by air.

That dream, as shown in an Amazon video, involves launching airborne drones to deliver small packages to customers within minutes of placing an order.

The Federal Aviation Administration has now given permission to Amazon that will allow it to begin test flights outdoors. The permission, in the form of an experimental airworthiness certificate, also places limitations on the operation of those drones.

Those limitations include flight at an altitude of no more than 400 feet above ground level. In addition, the testing must be performed in clear weather and during daylight hours. The drone pilot must have a private pilot's license with a current medical certificate. In addition, the operator must have line of sight visibility of the drone when it's flying.

A number of interested parties have criticized the FAA's rules for limiting the innovation of drones. In addition, the limits are clearly greater than what Amazon would have liked.

But the fact is that these rules are nearly identical to every other initial approval of any kind of experimental aircraft, with the exception of allowing the pilot to be outside the aircraft. With most other experimental airworthiness certificates, the pilot is required to be inside the aircraft when it's being flown.

And make no mistake, Amazon's drones are experimental aircraft. They may be based on existing designs, although that's not clear from the video, but there are no currently approved commercial delivery drones currently flying. Amazon will be the first.

The rules for Amazon are very much in line with the proposed rules for drones announced by the FAA in February. But it's worth noting that they are also in line with the rules for other experimental aircraft. Those rules include limiting new aircraft from flying over people except those involved with the flight. They also limit flight for new experimental aircraft to daylight hours in good weather, and the pilot must be licensed.

In addition, the requirement by the FAA that the drone flights be logged and that Amazon report the flight test results to the FAA is also similar to rules for other experimental aircraft.

In short, no one—Amazon, drone advocates or drone makers—should be surprised by the rules. If anything, the FAA is being more lenient with Amazon than it could have been, since it would seem more within the rules that the pilot have a commercial license.

Melissa Rudinger, vice president for governmental affairs for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, has been working on the drone rules for some time. "The parameters of the Amazon exemption are the same as others. Must have pilot and observer. Pilot must have minimum of a Private Pilot License, daytime, VFR, line of sight, below 400 feet," Rudinger said in an email to eWEEK.

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...