Amazon, pursuing drone delivery for packages, seeks FAA nod to test-fly (+video)

Amazon is aiming to use drones to deliver packages to customers in 30 minutes or less. Currently, the FAA has a ban on the commercial use of unmanned aerial vehicles.

By , Staff writer

The tech community scoffed at Jeff Bezos when he told Charlie Rose on "60 Minutes" this past December that Amazon.com would soon employ a fleet of drones to deliver packages to customers in 30 minutes or less. However, it appears that the company is poised to make good on that promise ... if only the Federal Aviation Administration would get out of its way.

On Wednesday, the online retail giant submitted a petition for exemption from the FAA’s ban on the commercial use of unmanned aerial vehicles.

"Because Amazon is a commercial enterprise we have been limited to conducting R&D flights indoors or in other countries," wrote Paul Misener, Amazon’s vice president for global public policy, in a letter dated July 9 and posted online by the FAA. “Of course, Amazon would prefer to keep the focus, jobs, and investment of this important research and development initiative in the United States."

Recommended: Infographic The future of drones in the US

In response to a 2012 congressional directive to establish a road map for the use of drones, the FAA designated six sites for companies and universities to test drones for commercial use – in Alaska, Nevada, New York, North Dakota, Texas, and Virginia. Mr. Misener said the company does plan to use those facilities, but added it would be “impractical” for that to be the company’s sole testing method.

The company hopes to launch its Prime Air delivery program next year and claims that it will be ready to begin automated deliveries as soon as the FAA can implement the necessary regulations.

The request in Wednesday's letter does not ask for blanket permission to fly the company’s small robotic helicopters anywhere. Amazon is only seeking permission to test the crafts on company property in its own “private model airplane field.”

“Granting this request will do nothing more than allow Amazon to do what thousands of hobbyists and manufacturers of model aircraft do every day,” the letter reads.

Hobbyists are allowed to fly similar crafts provided that they stay below 400 feet and do not encroach on airports. However, under current FAA regulations, the commercial use of unmanned aerial vehicles is illegal. Critics argue that using commercial versus noncommercial use as the defining distinction of legality creates a double standard that has little to do with safety.

In a Forbes editorial, Pepperdine University law professor Gregory McNeal slammed the FAA for investigating New York City real estate agents who used drones to take aerial photos of properties and for ruling that farmers cannot use the craft to monitor crops.

“This is government regulation at its worst,” Professor McNeal wrote. “[R]egulating based on commercial versus non-commercial use has nothing to do with safety, in fact it may be the worst way to draw the line on safe versus unsafe operations.”

On Tuesday, a remote-controlled helicopter being flown by two men over the George Washington Bridge in the New York area nearly collided with a police helicopter, forcing the pilot to change course. The two men have since been charged with reckless endangerment.

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