Amazon Given FAA Clearance To Expand Drone Deliveries

Amazon has been granted a significant permission from the US aviation regulator that will allow it to expand its drone delivery service in America.

In a blog post on Thursday, Amazon explained that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) currently “requires that all commercial drone operators are able to maintain a line of sight to their drones until it approves a technology that can safely enable drones to fly beyond visual line of sight.”

But now the FAA has granted a notable approval that “will allow Prime Air to further expand drone deliveries and lays the foundation to safely scale operations to more locations in the US.”

Amazon Drone. Image credit: Amazon

FAA approval

Limiting drone flights to within the visual line of sight of drone operators is obviously a huge limitation for entities seeking to offer a commercial drone delivery service.

Therefore “regulators around the world have been working on creating new rules and authorising technologies that will allow more complex drone operations, like package delivery, to safely scale and operate beyond the line of sight of a remote pilot,” said Amazon.

In 2014 it was reported that NASA was developing an air-traffic control system specifically for drones. That NASA air-traffic control system for drone was apparently being developed at NASA’s Moffett Field, near Google’s Mountain View, California headquarters.

That system was designed specifically for devices flying around 500 feet to the ground or less, and it would monitor weather and air traffic conditions, keeping track of wind patterns that could affect lightweight drones.

The system would also ensure drones keep clear of buildings, helicopters and other objects, also enforcing no-fly zones around areas such as major airports.

In 2018 both Amazon and NASA utilised experts in France – a country that had less stringent laws governing the use of unmanned vehicles – to help develop its drone control systems.

Amazon employees at a drone R&D facility. Image credit: Amazon

And now Amazon has achieved a significant approval from the FAA, that will extend Prime Air drone delivery speed beyond limited areas and neighbourhoods.

Beyond visual line of sight

“We’re excited to share that the FAA has given Prime Air additional permissions that allow us to operate our drones beyond visual line of sight, enabling us to now serve more customers via drone and effectively expand and scale our drone delivery operations,” said Amazon.

“To obtain this permission, we developed a BVLOS strategy, including an onboard detect-and-avoid technology,” it said. “We’ve spent years developing, testing, and refining our onboard detect-and-avoid system to ensure our drones can detect and avoid obstacles in the air.”

“We submitted crucial engineering information to the FAA, including our onboard detect-and-avoid capabilities,” it said. “This included how our system was designed, how it is operated, how it is maintained, and ultimately how we validated that the system performs to specified requirements.”

Amazon said that conducted flight demonstrations in the presence of FAA inspectors to show its system works in real-world scenarios – flying the drones in the presence of real planes, helicopters, and a hot air balloon to demonstrate how the drone safely navigated away from each of them.

“We also provided extensive analysis and test data for our technology that further validated the safety of our system,” it said. “After reviewing this information and observing the technology in action at our test site, the FAA provided Amazon Prime Air with BVLOS approval.”

“This new authorisation and new permissions allow us expand our delivery area in College Station, Texas,” Amazon said. “It means more Amazon customers than ever before will be eligible to choose from thousands of items for drone delivery, including household essentials and beauty and drugstore products.

Amazon Drone Delivery. Image credit: Amazon

Amazon said that later this year, drone deliveries will begin integrating into Amazon’s delivery network, meaning drones will deploy from facilities next to our Same-Day Delivery sites, which will provide Amazon customers with faster delivery of an even greater selection of items.

Amazon said its goal is for Prime Air to deliver 500 million packages, per year, by drone, by the end of this decade.

Long development

The concept of drone deliveries has been under development at Amazon for over a decade now.

Amazon began plotting to use drones for deliveries, ever since first mooting the idea back in 2013.

The plan was that drones could deliver packages weighing up to 2.3 kilograms.

Amazon at one stage also patented the idea of a possible floating mothership retail hub (a warehouse in the sky) for drone deliveries.

Amazon had already tested drone deliveries in the United Kingdom. This occurred when Amazon began testing its delivery drone service in Cambridge back in July 2016.

A package was delivered, by drone, in just 13 minutes.

Regulatory trouble

But in the US, airspace restrictions had led to years of frustrations for drone operators.

In 2015 for example Amazon revealed it had been testing its “Prime Air” delivery drones in Canada’s British Columbia, after the e-commerce giant had previously criticised the US rules as an overly restrictive to the technology.

Finally in 2022 Amazon announced its plans to begin commercial drone delivery services, pending final regulatory approval.

In August 2022 Amazon received the final approval from the FAA to use drones for package deliveries in two areas – Lockeford, California and College Station, Texas.

Last month Amazon ended its drone delivery service in Lockeford, California, after it had suspended that service area in 2023.

Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

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