Amazon is carrying out experimental drone-delivery tests in Canadian airspace in order to avoid ‘arbitrary restrictions’ by US flight authorities
Amazon has been apparently actively testing its “Prime Air” delivery drones in Canada’s British Columbia in a move that further underscores what the company has criticised as an overly restrictive approach by US authorities to the technology.
Amazon is keeping the exact location of the testing site secret, but it’s roughly 2,000 feet from the US border, in a plot of open land lined by oak trees and firs and overseen by plainclothes security guards, according to a report in the Guardian.
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The report didn’t indicate how long tests have been going on at the site, but said Amazon was already carrying out its experiments there last week when Paul Misener, the company’s vice-president for global public policy, appeared before a US Senate subcommittee last week to warn federal regulators about their sluggishness on drone policy.
Misener didn’t mention the Canadian tests at that time, and indeed the facility had remained undisclosed until now.
Amazon said its licensing process with the Canadian government took just three weeks, and gives it virtually unrestricted use of the airspace above its plot for its constantly changing fleet of drones. Canada’s Transport Canada reportedly approved 1,672 commercial drone licences last year alone.
By contrast, the US Federal Aviation Authority’s (FAA) process reportedly takes many months to complete, and only a few dozen licences have been approved to date, out of hundreds of commercial applications. Amazon said it applied last July for an exemption allowing it to carry out outdoor experimentation, but hasn’t received a response from the FAA.
The authority last week granted Amazon a certificate to test a specific model of drone, but the model it applied to is already obsolete, Amazon said.
Moreover, the FAA has indicated that it doesn’t believe drones can be flown safely outside of line-of-sight, a restriction that’s incompatible with Amazon’s plans for a fleet of drones that carry out short-range deliveries for small packages within 30 minutes.
Those plans hinge on the drones’ ability to carry out fully automated deliveries, without human oversight or intervention.
The FAA has said its restrictions are based on maintaining safety, and Amazon indicated its tests have the same goal. The Canadian tests reportedly include experiments with sensors for detecting and avoiding obstacles, link-loss procedures for controlling the drone if its communications link with the base is broken, stability in wind and turbulence and environmental impact.
“The most important part is to develop strong confidence that our system is safe and that we can demonstrate that to customers,” Gur Kimchi, the architect and head of Prime Air, told The Guardian.
At the Canadian site Amazon is reportedly testing drones weighing less than 55lbs, intended to fly between 200ft and 500ft, aimed at carrying payloads of up to 5lbs over 10 miles or longer, and travelling at 50mph. A drone tested at the site took off and landed vertically and flew horizontally.
Amazon’s Prime Air team reportedly includes robotics engineers, software engineers, aeronautics experts and sensor experts, including a former Nasa astronaut and the designer of the wingtip of the Boeing 787.
Until opening the Canadian site, Amazon was limited to indoor tests in its Seattle laboratory, along with research in Cambridge and Israel, according to the report.
The FAA has recently published guidelines for the commercial use of small drones, but they aren’t expected to come into effect for at least two years.
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