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.
FAA Permits Amazon to Test-Fly Delivery Drones With Usual Restrictions
“From AOPA‘s perspective, we think that the exemption requirements protect the safety of manned flight, ensure that UAS [unmanned aircraft system] operations are conducted away from airports and outside of what is considered navigable airspace for manned aircraft. Also, these limited operations provide valuable data as the FAA develops its regulations for commercial use of small UAS.”
For those who have been licensed and have flown aircraft, the rules make good sense. Part of the process of learning to be a pilot involves learning to handle an aircraft in flight, of course, but there’s a lot more to it than that. Pilots are tested on the laws involving flying aircraft, the impact of the weather on flight, safety rules and emergency procedures.
Then they must pass a test that demonstrates their knowledge. While the demands aren’t excessively rigorous, they are tough, and they’re tough for a reason. The safety of everyone in the vicinity of the aircraft is dependent on the pilot’s ability to do what he or she has been trained to do.
The much criticized rule that the pilot have line of sight visibility with the drone is a very good example. While it’s nice to believe that any aircraft, including a drone, exists in the sky by itself, this simply isn’t the case.
Up there in the air are any number of birds, bats and bugs along with airplanes and other drones. It’s the pilot’s job to avoid hitting any of those and if the drone does hit something, to land it as safely as possible.
With the pilot able to see the drone while it’s in flight, it’s also possible to make sure that there’s nothing out there to run into, or if there is, to avoid it. The same isn’t true of a video camera, which looks only in one direction at a time and can’t readily swivel around in the way a pilot’s head does when flying.
The requirement to see and be seen is a critical part of aviation, which is why those airliners you see as they fly by all seem to have strobe lights on them day or night. But while you can mount a strobe on a drone, the rest of the mix is harder to accomplish. How is an autonomous machine going to maintain situational awareness?
There are a lot of drone apologists who complain that these rules will prevent commercial drones from taking flight. It’s worth noting that those apologists seem to have vested interests in seeing the drone business take off sooner rather than later. But the fact is that drone aviation needs to be at least as safe as any other kind.
Eventually, Amazon and other would-be commercial drone operators will get their approvals for commercial operations, but that won’t happen until they prove they can do it safely. If that means that your drone-delivered box of microwave popcorn will have to wait, so be it.