FAA Toughens Stance In Drone Row

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Prime Air 2 Anazon drone delivery copter

The US aviation regulator says no one has given Amazon permission to fly delivery drones

The US’ aviation regulator underscored the currently ambiguous legal status of commercial drones this week, in a consultation document that reiterated its position that only hobbyist use of the unmanned devices is currently permitted.

In the document (PDF), the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) specifically stated that commercial package-delivery schemes such as those proposed by Amazon don’t fall under the “special rule” that applies to hobbyist devices. Those wishing to use drones for non-hobbyist purposes must currently apply for a speecial FAA permission, called a Certificate of Authority – without which they are illegal.

Prime Air 2 Anazon drone delivery copter

Drone progress

The controversy around drones arrives at a time when technical advances have made them practical for a wide range of activities, including commercial uses, but these are currently held back by the lack of an appropriate regulatory framework. At the current time, BP is the only company that has been given FAA permission to fly drones in the US, having been granted licence in June.

Hobbyists are, however, allowed to use drones without a licence, due to a “special rule” established by Congress in the Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, and the FAA said its consultation document is intended to clarify what it considers is included under this exemption, which broadly covers all “model aircraft”.

In an overt reference to Amazon’s Prime Air delivery scheme, the document states that “delivering packages to people for a fee” is not covered by the exemption that applies to hobbyists.

In a footnote, the FAA further specified that this rule applies even if a fee isn’t necessarily collected in every case.

“If an individual offers free shipping in association with a purchase or other offer, FAA would construe the shipping to be in furtherance of a business purpose, and thus, the operation would not fall within the statutory requirement of recreation or hobby purpose,” the document states.

‘Model aircraft’

The uses covered by the “model aircraft” exemption will not be affected by “future FAA rulemaking action”, the document states.

An FAA spokeswoman confirmed that the document only relates to hobbyist devices, and as such does not apply to Amazon’s plans. Amazon said the document “has no effect on our plans”.

The FAA is facing growing pressure to liberalise the rules around commercial drones, and has promised to revisit the situation later this year, with new rules in place perhaps by the end of 2015. Amazon has said it is awaiting these rules as it develops Prime Air.

“Putting Prime Air into commercial use will take some number of years as we advance the technology and wait for the necessary FAA rules and regulations,” Amazon said in a statement on the Prime Air web page.

The company has previously said it hopes to introduce drone delivery by 2018.

Amazon announced Prime Air in December, ahead of the Christmas shopping season, saying on the scheme’s web page that it is designed to “get packages into customers’ hands in 30 minutes or less using unmanned aerial vehicles”.

Facebook and Google are also considering drones as the means to provide Internet access.

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