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.”
FAA’s Recent Drone Testing Permit Too Little, Too Late, Says Amazon
The FAA is currently accepting public comments through April 24 on new rules it proposed back in February that would regulate such unmanned aircraft systems, including drones that are proposed for use by Amazon. The public comment period opened on Feb. 23. The 48 companies that have been granted permission for experiments by the FAA so far have received exemptions to begin their studies before the proposed new FAA rules are in place for UAS devices.
So far, it is still early in the FAA’s process to propose, review and finalize rules in the controversial area of drones. Critics of drones cite concerns about privacy, potential interference with commercial and private air traffic, terrorism worries and more, while supporters argue that drones could open new avenues of commerce, logistics and potential services that have not yet even been identified.
Back in December 2013, Amazon said it had begun working on a drone-based delivery system that it hoped to use in the next few years to deliver packages to customers’ doorsteps in 30 minutes or less, according to an earlier eWEEK report. At the time, Amazon said those future deliveries could be made using what it called a “Prime Air Octocopter,” which had four thin metal legs and eight small, horizontally spinning helicopter blades that made it look like a large robotic stink bug. The drone was about the size of a medium-size dog and grabbed and carried its package off to its destination, according to the company’s description at the time.
Amazon predicted back then that it would be ready to set its Octocopters in flight by 2015, but it is still waiting for the FAA to create and finalize the rules that could one day enable such delivery methods.
Under FAA rules, a small UAS must weigh less than 55 pounds, while there are also potential provisions for an additional, more flexible framework for “micro” UAS devices that weigh less than 4.4 pounds, according to the agency.
The proposed new rules also require operators to minimize risks to other aircraft and people and property on the ground by always watching for and avoiding manned aircraft. If there is a risk of collision, the UAS operator must be the first to maneuver away, the proposed rules state.
In addition, a UAS pilot must discontinue a flight when continuing would pose a hazard to other aircraft, people or property and will not be permitted to fly over people, except those directly involved with the flight. Flights would be limited to a 500-foot altitude and speeds no faster than 100 mph under the proposals.