Commercial drone operators would be banned from letting unmanned aircraft out of their sight, under new US proposals that come as a major blow to companies like Amazon.com Inc that are hoping to use the unmanned aircraft to make aerial home deliveries.
Amazon said the proposed new US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rules, which were outlined in a conference call with reporters on Sunday morning, would prevent it from operating such a service in the US and could force it to develop the technology overseas instead.
“The FAA needs to begin and expeditiously complete the formal process to address the needs of our business, and ultimately our customers,” Amazon vice president of global public policy Paul Misener said in a statement to reporters. “We are committed to realizing our vision for Prime Air and are prepared to deploy where we have the regulatory support we need.”
Testing of Amazon’s Prime Air technology has been taking place at an indoor facility in Washington State, but the company recently expanded its research and development team in Cambridge in the UK and has threatened to switch investment to more sympathetic regulatory environments.
Asked about the threat from Amazon to move abroad, US officials insisted they were moving as fast as they could to respond to advances in automated safety systems and would consider whether to allow exemptions in future.
“We know that technology is changing very rapidly,” US Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx told reporters. “We are not done yet, and we are going to continue working to ensure we are moving as quickly as possible, but also as safely as possible, to ensure that we integrate these new technologies into the airspace.”
Amazon fears that simply implementing the existing rule proposals might take too long, even though the administration has been examining the issue for at least two years.
“The FAA’s proposed rules for small UAS [unmanned aircraft systems] could take one or two years to be adopted and, based on the proposal, even then those rules wouldn’t allow Prime Air to operate in the United States,” Misener said.
The FAA says its new rule would not necessarily prohibit automated flight technology so long as an operator who was in visual contact could intervene and was not responsible for more than one drone at a time. The rule also prohibits any item being dropped from a drone or carrying cargo for a third party.
“We have tried to be flexible in writing these rules,” FAA administrator Michael Huerta said in a statement. “We want to maintain today’s outstanding level of aviation safety without placing an undue regulatory burden on an emerging industry.”
Industry groups said they were encouraged by some aspects of the proposed new rule changes, including scrapping previous requirements for a full pilot’s license, medical examination and an air-worthiness certificate for smaller drones.
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