Amazon Gains Federal Approval For Drone Tests

Amazon’s vision of delivering goods via drones to people’s front doors moved one step closer this week.

The e-commerce giant was finally granted official approval from US federal regulators to test a delivery drone outdoors in the United States.

Start Your Engines!

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced on Thursday that it has issued an experimental airworthiness certificate to an Amazon Logistics Inc and an unmanned aircraft (UAS) design (or drone to you and me).

“Under the provisions of the certificate, all flight operations must be conducted at 400 feet or below during daylight hours in visual meteorological conditions,” said the FAA. “The UAS must always remain within visual line-of-sight of the pilot and observer. The pilot actually flying the aircraft must have at least a private pilot’s certificate and current medical certification.”

It was reported that Amazon had been seeking permission to fly the prototype drone at altitudes up to 500 feet (150 meters). Testing will apparently take place over private, rural land in Washington state.

The FAA restriction about keeping the drone within visual line-of-sight of the pilot and observer will be a concern.

The idea of the Amazon Prime Air drone is to provide a delivery service by 2018. The Amazon drone will travel at 50mph in order to bring goods to certain locations via GPS, like someone’s front door. But that will require the drone to operate outside of the operator’s field of vision if that model is to become a commercial reality.

Indeed, the drone will have to operate autonomously and sense and avoid objects. Amazon is reportedly working with NASA on an air-traffic management system for drones.

But Amazon is serious about this, and last November for example, it advertised for a full-time ‘drone flight engineer’ position in the UK.

Another limitation is that Amazon’s approval is only for a particular drone, and it must therefore gain a new certification if it modifies the aircraft or flies a different version.

“The certificate also requires Amazon to provide monthly data to the FAA,” said the aviation authority. “The company must report the number of flights conducted, pilot duty time per flight, unusual hardware or software malfunctions, any deviations from air traffic controllers’ instructions, and any unintended loss of communication links. The FAA includes these reporting requirements in all UAS experimental airworthiness certificates.”

Drone Risks

Other potential uses of drones is for the agriculture industry, with farmers using them to help with crop management etc.

But there are some security concerns about drones as well.

Earlier this week, British police arrested a man after he used a drone to film to film a number of English premiership football matches. The man also flew his drone over sensitive locations in central London.

Last year Google admitted it was developing its own fleet of airborne drones for home deliveries. Facebook meanwhile is also working on drones as well, in an effort to expand the Web’s global reach via its Internet.org programme.

How much do you know about drones? Take our quiz!

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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