Amazon gets its wish as FAA drone approval speeds up

FAA agrees to expedite its drone approval process, allowing Amazon to test models before they become 'obsolete.'

An Amazon drone drops off a package before zipping back into the air. While Amazon announced its intention to launch a fleet of drone, such a plan would currently be illegal by FAA rules.

Amazon and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) have had a bumpy relationship this year. But after some loud protesting by Amazon, the FAA has again granted the online retail giant permission to begin testing its latest commercial drones.

In a letter Wednesday, the FAA approved the Seattle-based company’s second request to test its prototype drones outdoors, issuing Amazon an experimental airworthiness certificate. The e-commerce company will be required to have its drones maintain an altitude of no more that 400 feet and travel no faster than 100 miles per hour, as first reported by Reuters.

"We're pleased the FAA has granted our petition for this stage of R&D experimentation, and we look forward to working with the agency for permission to deliver Prime Air service to customers in the United States safely and soon," says Paul Misener, Amazon’s vice president for global public policy, via e-mail to Engadet.

Amazon has had a lot of red tape to cut through since it first announced its plans for a drone delivery program back in December 2013 and it’s mostly come from the US governmental agency.

In 2012, Congress ordered the FAA to integrate UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) into the same airspace as passenger planes by September 2015. The FAA has hinted that it's unlikely to meet that deadline.

While the FAA has made progress in laying the groundwork for the legalization of commercial drone usage, it mostly applied to fields dealing with research, filming, or agricultural purposes. The new rules, proposed in February this year, required that drones remain within sight of the operator, prohibited them from flying over anyone unless they were "directly involved with the flight,” and – the biggest kicker for Amazon – denied permission to drop items such as packages from the sky.

By March, the FAA granted Amazon permission to test a prototype drone for the first time, but a week later, the company announced it had already moved on to testing newer UAVs overseas and the approved prototype was obsolete after the six-month wait from the US government.

Mr. Misener told a Senate subcommittee after the approval that the US was falling behind other countries in regard to drones, explaining that, “Nowhere outside of the United States have we been required to wait more than one or two months to begin testing.”

Now, Amazon will finally be able to begin outdoor testing in America, thanks to the new guidelines. The FAA can now approve low-risk drones faster, which mainly includes filming purposes or those who are conducting tests for data for later use, such as Amazon. The new regulations additionally allow for the administration to quickly issue an approval if "it has already granted a previous exemption similar to the new request."

Amazon’s frustration with the FAA is understandable, but the company may find its savior in another branch of the government.

Forbes reported in March that New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker (D) plans to introduce the “Commercial UAV Modernization Act,” which, according to the two-week old draft, would give more breathing room to skirt certain FAA regulations. The draft of the bill suggests authorization for pilots who have passed a “knowledge test” to operate UVAs during daylight hours and under the FAA’s flight altitude limit.

While many believe the FAA could take up to another two years to finalize drone regulations, it appears Amazon, and all other companies with an interest in UAVs, have some in Congress fighting to push its interests through faster.

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