Amazon Wins Federal Support for Drone Deliveries Across the Pond

Written by Betsy Lillian
on July 26, 2016 No Comments

Back in 2014, Amazon warned the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) what would happen if the company did not have the authorization to adequately test its Prime Air drone delivery system in the U.S.: It would take its work elsewhere. According to a new announcement, Amazon is now doing just that.

Amazon explains in a press release that it has secured the support of the U.K.’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), which is convening a “cross-government team” to work with the company on three things necessary for drone delivery: operations taking place beyond the visual line of sight, sense-and-avoid technology, and operations of more than one drone at the same time by one pilot.

In the release, Paul Misener – Amazon’s vice president of global innovation policy and communications and also an avid speaker at congressional hearings on drones – says although Amazon Prime Air has been investing in research and development in the U.K. “for quite some time,” this latest announcement “strengthens [its] partnership with the U.K. and brings Amazon closer to [its] goal of using drones to safely deliver parcels in 30 minutes to customers in the U.K. and elsewhere around the world.”

Tim Johnson, policy director for the CAA, adds in the release, “We want to enable the innovation that arises from the development of drone technology by safely integrating drones into the overall aviation system.”

First introduced in a 60 Minutes special on CBS in late 2013, the Amazon Prime Air drone delivery system strives for autonomous home deliveries of packages weighing under 5 lbs. in half an hour.

Although the company has since received several FAA authorizations to test its system in the U.S., under the agency’s soon-to-be-implemented new rules for small commercial unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), entities may not operate drones directly over people not involved in the flight or beyond the line of sight of the pilot (without seeking further authorization from the FAA).

In a press conference announcing the new rulemaking last month, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta was asked specifically about the future of drone deliveries. Though he did not offer a timetable on when it could become a reality in this country, he noted “very active research” being done to further flights taking place over people or beyond the visual line of sight. In addition, the new rules do state that the “transportation of property for compensation or hire” is, indeed, allowed, as long as the drone’s payload stays under 55 lbs.

Amazon has hinted for quite some time that it has not been receiving FAA approval in a timely manner in order to move its Prime Air initiative forward: At a congressional hearing in June 2015, Misener said it was developing sense-and-avoid technology that could not yet be implemented because it had not been federally approved. At a hearing earlier in 2015, he noted that Amazon’s experimental airworthiness certificate to test its UAS had become “obsolete” because the company had gone on to develop a more advanced aircraft in the time it had taken to receive the authorization.

In late 2014, Misener wrote in a letter to the FAA that Amazon Prime Air had been restricted to testing its aircraft indoors because it had not yet received approval to do so outside. Thus, the company said it had already been taking some of its research and development outside the U.S.

“Without the ability to test in the United States soon,” he wrote, “we will have no choice but to divert even more of our UAS research and development resources abroad.”

On its official Amazon Prime Air description, the company has long said that deploying the service “will take some time,” but it will happen when Amazon has the “regulatory support needed to realize [its] vision.”

Has the U.K. become the one to realize the Seattle-based e-retail giant’s vision?

According to Misener, the country is “charting a path forward for drone technology that will benefit consumers, industry and society.”

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