The FAA's slowness to move forward on drone rules isn't standing in Amazon's way. The company has operations in many areas outside the United States, and while the U.K. is the first place where such testing is allowed, it's clear it won't be the last.
"We are working with regulators and policymakers in many countries in order to make Prime Air a reality for our customers and expect to continue to do so," Kish said in an email.
Amazon isn't saying exactly where the new drone tests will take place in the U.K., nor is it specifying what it will test. What's clear is that Amazon is determined to implement unmanned delivery one way or the other as a way to improve service and cut costs. The company already is openly discussing order deliveries in 30 minutes or less in suburban or rural areas.
Here in the United States, where airborne drone delivery seems to be on long-term hold, another solution is about to start testing in urban areas. In fact, the city council of Washington, D.C., has already approved tests of a ground-based delivery drone from a company called Starship. The company will start testing its wheeled robots in Washington Sept. 15 and continue them through the end of 2017.
The advantage of those ground-based autonomous vehicles (or whatever it is that we'll eventually call those wheeled devices) is that the FAA—or, for that matter, the federal government—isn't involved. Instead, private companies can petition local and state governments to get permission to operate and those local governments need only to incorporate those devices into local traffic laws.
While it's not fair to suggest that the U.S. government is holding back all research in the area of autonomous operations—after all, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency was a leader in the development of autonomous vehicles—the FAA has been slow to move. The agency is rightfully concerned about the safety of flight, but in the process it has held back all development in areas where some testing could be accommodated.
While it's understandable why the FAA is reluctant to allow drone testing in Washington, given the risks involved and the high density of air traffic, it would seem that there are areas of the United States where this sort of testing could be encouraged. There are already some defined drone test areas around the United States that are intended by the FAA for similar purposes. So far, however, it doesn't appear the agency is prepared to test much in the way of advanced drone operations.
For the time being, at least, we in the United States are going to have to watch freight drone development from afar—or, at least, watch it trundle along some city sidewalks. It's understandable that the FAA is responsible for the safety of the airspace in the United States, but the same agency is also responsible for the development of aviation, and it seems an abundance of caution has negated that function.