Written byJake Williams
In December, Amazon’s CEO announced the company was exploring a drone-based delivery service that could deliver some packages in as quickly as 30 minutes. Less than a year later, the company is ready to take that plan to the next level.
In a letter Wednesday to the Federal Aviation Administration, the online shopping giant requested an exemption under section 333 of the 2012 FAA Modernization and Reform Act to operate an unmanned aircraft system before the agency’s official guidelines are released.
“Amazon shares Congress’ goal of getting small aerial vehicles (a.k.a., small unmanned aircraft systems, or “sUAS”) flying commercially in the United States safely and soon,” the letter, authored by Paul Misener, Amazon’s vice president of global public policy, said.
Since the initial announcement about Amazon Prime Air in December 2013, the company said in the letter its grasp on the technology has improved.
Now, Amazon is ready to test its eighth and ninth generation UAS. The company’s drones can travel 50 mph and carry five pound loads, which accounts for about 86 percent of the company’s orders, Misener said.
Under the FAA’s current rules, commercial entities can only test their craft inside a facility or in another country where commercial drone operation is legal.
“Of course, Amazon would prefer to keep the focus, jobs and investment of this important research and development initiative in the United States by conducting private research and development outdoors near Seattle – where our next-generation R&D lab and distinguished team of engineers, scientists and aeronautical professionals are located,” Misener said.
In the letter, Misener also touted Amazon’s drone team, which he said contains “world-renowned roboticists, scientists, aeronautical engineers, remote sensing experts and a former NASA astronaut.”
In an email statement, the FAA confirmed that Amazon had filed for the exemption. Spokeswoman Alison Duquette also said in the email that among other criteria, Amazon needs to show in the petition that an exemption would be in the public’s best interest.
“Amazon.com submitted a petition for consideration by the Federal Aviation Administration to request regulatory exemptions that would let the company perform research and development tests with unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) outdoors over Amazon private property,” Duquette said. “To receive the exemptions, Amazon must show that their UAS operations will not adversely affect safety, or provide at least an equal level of safety to the rules from which they seek the exemption.”
Brian Hearing, a co-founder at DroneShield — a company that provides consumers with equipment that alerts them to the presence of drones — said the company encourages Amazon to continue to develop Prime Air, but the key is for consumers to know when drones are around.
“There are still significant technical and legal hurdles to overcome,” Hearing said in an email to FedScoop. “Regardless of Amazon’s success, you will always have the right to know if a drone with potential surveillance capabilities is nearby and your options to respond.”
Melanie Hinton, the senior communications manager for the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, said Amazon Prime Air is an example of how beneficial drone technology can be to the consumer.
“Amazon’s continued interest in UAS technology shows the potential of this technology and underscores the importance of the FAA creating regulations for the safe use of UAS in the national airspace,” Hinton said. “Amazon has proposed using its UAS under guidelines more stringent than those hobbyists have safely followed for years. We urge the FAA to consider this exemption, as well as other low-risk commercial applications.”
Hinton also said if the FAA were to approve an exemption for Amazon and a similar exemption for the Motion Picture Association of America, that it could open up the field for economic growth.
“The FAA has already announced that [it] will consider exceptions for other commercial applications including film and television, precision agriculture, power line inspections and flare stack inspections,” Hinton said. “Accelerating these uses will not only help businesses harness the tremendous potential of UAS, they will also help unlock the economic impact and job creation potential of the technology.”
According to Duquette, UAS can be flown in civil airspace through several methods, including the operation of model aircraft by hobbyists for recreational use.
“Certificates of Waiver or Authorization are available to public entities for uses including law enforcement, firefighting, border patrol, disaster relief, search and rescue, military training, and other government operational missions,” Duquette said. “A flight that is not for hobby or recreation requires a certified aircraft, a licensed pilot and operating approval. The FAA authorizes such flights on a case-by-case basis. To date, two operations have met these criteria, and authorization was limited to the Arctic.”
Amazon has taken other steps to move the needle on UAS regulations and has ramped up its lobbying presence on Capitol Hill.
According to a House of Representatives lobbying registration filed in May, Amazon hired Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP, a Washington, D.C., lobbying firm, to press Congress on opening UAS flight. In 2013, the company spent nearly $3.5 million on lobbying in general, according to OpenSecrets.
Although Congress mandated a fall 2015 deadline for integrating drones into the national airspace, an FAA inspector general report earlier this month said the agency would miss the deadline.
Amazon, however, doesn’t seem to be phased. At the conclusion of the letter to the FAA, Misener said Amazon’s Prime Air service is not a matter of if, but rather when.
“One day, seeing Amazon Prime Air will be as normal as seeing mail trucks on the road today, resulting in enormous benefits for consumers across the nation,” Misener said. “We respectfully submit this petition for exemption so that Prime Air can be ready to launch commercial operations as soon as eventually permitted by subsequent FAA action.”