Amazon Conducts Drone Testing in Canada While U.S. Laws Move Slowly

The online retailer, frustrated by slow FAA reviews of Amazon's drone delivery proposals, has been doing testing in a secret location in nearby Canada, according to a report.

drones, Amazon, package delivery

Slow movement by the FAA regarding Amazon's proposals to test its ideas for unmanned drone-based package delivery services in the United States has caused the Seattle-based online retailer to move much of its drone testing work to a secret location in Canada where such tests are being allowed.

The presence of the Canadian testing program, which is being done in a secret location in British Columbia only some 2,000 feet from the U.S. border, was revealed in a March 30 report by The Guardian. The company in the past said it would move such testing out of the United States so that it could continue to make progress on the ideas despite a continuing slow government response from the FAA, the article reported.

Amazon is keeping the location of the testing in Canada very quiet, but a team of roboticists, software engineers, aeronautics experts and pioneers in remote sensing are there and are moving the experiments forward, the news story reported.

"The end goal is to utilize what Amazon sees as a slice of virgin airspace—above 200 feet, where most buildings end, and below 500 feet, where general aviation begins," for its testing, the article reported. "Into that aerial slice the company plans to pour highly autonomous drones of less than 55 pounds, flying through corridors 10 miles or longer at 50 mph and carrying payloads of up to 5 pounds that account for 86 percent of all the company's packages."

The testing work in Canada is being done to try out ideas and concepts for future drone package delivery services by Amazon. The company is conducting its tests there on a plot of open land with the "full blessing of the Canadian government," the news story continued.

"Amazon's drone visionaries are taking the permissive culture on the Canadian side of the border and using it to fine-tune the essential features of what they hope will become a successful delivery-by-drone system," according to The Guardian. At the site, Amazon conducted tests of a hybrid drone that could take off and land vertically as well as fly horizontally, the article said.

By testing in Canada, Amazon is able to do experiments that it has not been able to do in the United States due to concerns from the Federal Aviation Administration, which is concerned about allowing drones to share airspace with U.S. commercial and private aircraft traffic without plenty of reviews, analysis and caution. To Amazon, the FAA is perhaps holding up innovation and being too conservative. To the agency, Amazon perhaps wants to jump ahead without enough caution and planning.

Earlier in March, the FAA issued an Experimental Airworthiness Certificate (EAC) to Amazon so that the online retailer could do more experiments with its drone delivery proposals, but a company spokesman quickly criticized the permit as being too little, too late. Instead of being thrilled by the FAA certificate, Paul Misener, Amazon's vice president for global public policy, told a U.S. Senate subcommittee that more needs to be done to help U.S. retailers catch up to similar drone delivery experiments under way elsewhere around the world, according to an earlier eWEEK report. Misener told the subcommittee that while Amazon was grateful for the recent permit it took so long to receive, it is now obsolete and useless.

Amazon has been waiting since at least December 2013 for the FAA to come up with workable rules that will give the company the flexibility it needs to run experiments with unmanned aircraft systems (UASes), commonly known as drones.

Amazon recently asked the FAA for permission to fly one of the company's latest and most advanced UASes in the United States, and the company hopes that approval request will be issued more quickly.