Amazon Prime Air Drone Tests Dodge FAA Regulations
Amazon has unveiled a drone or UAV/UAS-based rapid local delivery system using what appears to be a radio controlled (RC) multicopter in an octocopter configuration. Still experimental, the company says, "the goal of this new delivery system is to get packages into customers' hands in 30 minutes or less using unmanned aerial vehicles."
At first glance it seems the retailer has been engaged in commercial operations of an Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) as defined and prohibited by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) based on video posted to its website and this statement found on the Prime Air information page, "Check out this footage from a recent test flight." But appearances can and may be deceiving. Despite being a US-based company, it appears the test program and video may have all been undertaken outside of the USA and the FAA's authority.
If not, Amazon would have likely run afoul of Federal Regulations. But it is a very complicated subject.
According to an FAQ on the FAA website, while commercial UAV/drone operations are not currently permissible in the USA, "manufacturers may apply for an experimental certificate for the purposes of R&D, market survey and crew training." Some type of additional training may also be required in "all the specific details of the UA being operated," states the FAQ in another section.
AeroSpaceNews.com reached out to Amazon and the FAA in preparing this story with only partial success. In response to a phone call and three e-mails, Amazon only directed us to their Prime Air webpage, while inviting, but not actually responding to, follow up questions, prior to deadline.
However, a representative of the Airworthiness Certification Branch of the FAA was asked via e-mail, "Was Amazon.com, or any other entity, granted an experimental airworthiness certificate for the testing described on this page [the Amazon Prime Air url – Editor] and depicted in the video on the same page?"
They replied simply, "no."
A follow-up e-mail was sent asking if there was a violation of FAA regulations but as we prepared this story for publication no response was received.
However, during a phone interview with FAA spokesperson Alison Duquette, when asked if it was accurate to say that according to the FAA, they have a reasonable belief that the activities associated with the Prime Air testing and shown in the video thus far have been conducted outside the National Airspace System, she replied, "yes." In other words, nothing shown in the video took place in the United States, in the eyes of the FAA.
Photos and video released by Amazon don't clearly reveal where the filming took place, at least to anyone not intimately familiar with their fulfillment operations that could identify the site shown at the point in the video where the package is picked up and the drone flies out the door. Exterior scenes of the UAV flying across an open field with snow capped mountains in the background could possibly be Washington State, or Canada, or countless other locations, it is impossible to tell with certainty.
As previously stated, Amazon is so far silent on where this work was conducted.
Other regulatory and practical questions remain unanswered. What means of address-specific navigation will be used? How will obstacles like pedestrians, power lines and light poles be avoided? What is the target nominal range of the drone operation?
Is Amazon seeking a fully autonomous solution or will pilots, who will require additional training and possible certification in the USA, play a role?
The armada of drones continues their approach. But tomorrow they may be bringing your cyber Monday purchase along for the ride.
Editor's note and disclaimer: This link will take you to a page on an affiliated website that provides an overview of the regulatory issues in the USA for the commercial use of drones or RC aircraft in photography and video production - RC Helicopter Photography (a new window will open)