Sat, Mar 21, 2015 - Page 15 News List

Amazon wins approval to test drones in US

NY Times News Service, SEATTLE

US federal regulators have given Amazon.com Inc a green light to begin testing drones, but it is likely to take years before the online retailer can start delivering packages by air to people’s homes.

The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on Thursday gave Amazon permission to conduct test flights of its drones outdoors, as long as the company obeys rules such as flying below 122m and only during daylight.

In a sign of how far Amazon has to go before its vision for its drone-delivery service is realized, the company’s drones for now have to be operated by a pilot with a certificate to fly a private manned aircraft.

Amazon has envisioned its drone-delivery service, which it calls Amazon Prime Air, to be autonomous, consisting of buzzing fleets of miniature helicopters soaring far beyond the view of Amazon warehouses.

While the FAA has announced plans to allow more commercial uses of manned drones in the US, it has not said when it will permit the use of autonomous drones by companies such as Amazon. The agency’s main concern is making sure that drones, which everyone from farmers to cinematographers have shown interest in using for business purposes, can be operated safely.

Still, even getting permission to test drones outdoors with a pilot counts as progress for Amazon, which had been lobbying the FAA for approval to do so for months.

The company had previously been forced to test drones indoors near its headquarters in Seattle. It has also started outdoor tests outside the US and has warned federal regulators that jobs and investment dollars will leave the country if they do not relax their drone restrictions.

Now Amazon can test drones in the skies over a piece of private property, which it has previously disclosed is somewhere in rural Washington state.

The type of approval the FAA granted Amazon was not the company’s first choice. Called an experimental airworthiness certificate, it is normally granted to aerospace companies like Boeing Co and others that are conducting research and development on new drone technologies.

In a letter to the FAA in December last year, Amazon vice president of global public policy Paul Misener said the company had applied for the experimental certificate at the suggestion of the FAA, but complained of restrictions that would prevent it from rapidly experimenting.

Amazon has also requested a different type of approval from the FAA that would give it more flexibility in its drone tests, it said. The FAA has granted similar approvals for Hollywood film studios and other groups that want to use drones in their work.

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