Search This Blog

Friday, March 20, 2015

U.S. Regulators Give Amazon Go-Ahead for Drone Tests

As reported by Reuters: Amazon.com Inc has won approval from U.S. federal regulators to test a delivery drone outdoors, as the e-commerce company pursues its goal of sending packages to customers by air, even as it faces public concern about safety and privacy.

The Federal Aviation Administration said on Thursday it issued an experimental airworthiness certificate to an Amazon business unit and its prototype drone, allowing test flights over private, rural land in Washington state.

The FAA also granted Amazon an exemption from other flight restrictions so the experimental drone can conduct those flights.

The approval is a win for Seattle-based Amazon, the largest e-commerce company in the United States, and advances plans by the company and others to deliver packages using small, self-piloted aircraft.

There are limitations, however. The experimental certificate applies to a particular drone and Amazon must obtain a new certification if it modifies the aircraft or flies a different version, making it difficult to adapt the model quickly in the field. Amazon's petition for permission indicated it was testing several iterations of a drone at an indoor facility in Seattle.

Amazon must keep flights below 400 feet (120 meters) and keep the drone in sight, according to the FAA.

The company had asked for permission to fly at altitudes up to 500 feet (150 meters.)

The drone operators must have private pilot licenses and current medical certification. Amazon must supply monthly data to the regulators.

The company did not respond to requests for comment. Amazon public policy chief Paul Misener is set to testify at a congressional hearing on drones next Tuesday.

As part of Amazon Chief Executive Jeff Bezos' plan to deliver packages under a program dubbed "Prime Air," the company is developing drones that fly at speeds of 50 miles per hour (80 kph), operate autonomously and sense and avoid objects. Amazon also is working with NASA on an air-traffic management system for drones.

Amazon sought permission from the FAA to test drones in outdoor areas near Seattle, where one of its research and development labs is developing the technology. The company has conducted test flights outside the United States, in countries with looser restrictions.

In February, the FAA proposed long-awaited rules to try to set U.S. guidelines for drones, addressing growing interest from both individual and corporations in using unmanned aerial vehicles. The draft rules still must undergo public comment and revision before becoming final, which is expected to take at least a year.

Additionally, Amazon announced one-hour delivery services called 'Prime Now' in Baltimore and Miami.

The service will be available in select zip codes to Amazon Prime subscribers, who pay $99 a year for unlimited free two-day delivery on more than 20 million items. The one-hour service, available through the Prime Now mobile app, costs $7.99, while two-hour delivery will be free.

Amazon Prime's success has blown away the company's projections and "petrified" local and national retailers, said Howard Davidowitz, chairman of Davidowitz & Associates, a national retail consulting and investment banking firm headquartered in New York City.

"If you're a retailer and you're not scared of Amazon ... you should be," he said. "They are the change agent. They are leading the change in retail."

Davidowitz expects the Prime Now program to catch on rapidly in Baltimore the way it has in New York.

The service is made possible by the state-of-the-art fulfillment technology in Amazon's new 1 million-square-foot distribution center in Southeast Baltimore, at the site of the former General Motors plant on Broening Highway and a short drive from much of the city.

That facility will open in the next couple of weeks, said Amazon spokeswoman Kelly Cheeseman.