FAA's Recent Drone Testing Permit Too Little, Too Late, Amazon Says

While Amazon says it appreciates the issuance of the permit, it "doesn't go far enough," an Amazon spokesman tells a U.S. Senate subcommittee.

drone testing permit

Amazon might have been expected to be happy about the Federal Aviation Administration's recent decision that allows the online retailer to conduct outdoor experiments with its proposed drone-based package delivery services. But instead, an Amazon spokesman told a U.S. Senate subcommittee this week that the FAA permission is essentially too little, too late and that more needs to be done to help U.S. retailers catch up to similar drone delivery experiments under way elsewhere around the world.

At a March 24 Senate subcommittee hearing on unmanned aircraft systems, such as drones, Paul Misener, Amazon's vice president for global public policy, provided written testimony explaining his view that the Experimental Airworthiness Certificate (EAC) granted by the FAA to Amazon on March 19 simply wasn't enough to move the company's plans forward. 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.

"We are very grateful to the FAA for granting us permission to conduct UAS testing outdoors in the United States," Misener wrote in his testimony, which was submitted to the Subcommittee on Aviation Operations, Safety, and Security within the Senate's Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. "…We're eager to get flying here as we have been abroad. However, the permission the FAA granted is more restrictive than are the rules and approvals by which we conduct outdoor testing in the U.K. and elsewhere," and it took at least six months longer than similar permission took elsewhere around the world, he said.

The EAC issuance took so much time, he said, that it is now immediately obsolete, Misener testified. "We don't test it anymore," he said of the processes allowed in the recent permit. "We've moved on to more advanced designs that we already are testing abroad."

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

The EAC issued by the FAA recently permits Amazon's Logistics division to experiment with unmanned aircraft systems 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.

A key problem with the FAA's approach, said Misener, is that the agency "is not adequately addressing compelling UAS applications that involve highly automated operations beyond visual line of sight." Other national and multinational groups in Europe are already working on such issues, he testified.

An FAA subcommittee that is slated to be examining UAS flights beyond visual line of sight operations has only met twice since its inception last year, which is not acceptable, said Misener. "This low level of government attention and slow pace are inadequate, especially compared to the regulatory efforts in other countries. This is not to suggest that regulators here or abroad can quickly adopt actual rules for UAS operations beyond visual line of sight. That may take some time. But surely, regulators should start proposing regulatory frameworks and rules for future commercial UAS operations now."