Amazon, UK government partner on drone testing

NY Times News Service, WASHINGTON

Wed, Jul 27, 2016 - Page 10

Amazon has partnered with the British government to significantly expand drone testing, a move that could allow the devices to deliver packages to British homes far earlier than in the US.

Under the partnership, Britain’s aviation regulator will let Amazon test several aspects of drone technology — such as piloting the machines beyond the line of sight of its operators — that the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has not permitted. The tests, which are an important sign of confidence in Britain after its historic vote last month to leave the EU, are to begin immediately.

“The UK is a leader in enabling drone innovation,” Amazon vice president of global innovation policy and communications Paul Misener said in a statement. “This announcement strengthens our partnership with the UK and brings Amazon closer to our goal of using drones to safely deliver parcels in 30 minutes to customers in the UK and elsewhere around the world.”

The move puts pressure on the FAA, which had recently rebuffed requests by Amazon, Google and drone makers to advance their delivery plans. The tech behemoths and drone makers have aggressively lobbied the FAA to authorize the devices to significantly reduce costs to transport goods by airplane, freight and trucks.

Amazon said it hoped success with the drone trials in Britain would encourage more hesitant regulators in the US and elsewhere to loosen restrictions.

The trials will “help identify what operating rules and safety regulations will be needed to help move the drone industry forward,” the company said in a statement.

Amazon will work with British regulators to test drones that fly beyond the line of sight of operators in rural and suburban areas. It will also test whether a single operator can safely command multiple drones at once, as well as technology that lets the machines automatically detect and avoid other planes, buildings and people.

Amazon’s plan to use drone delivery will rely on those functions, a vision first described by CEO Jeff Bezos on CBS’ 60 Minutes in December 2013.

Bezos has since cited regulation as the biggest obstacle to the delivery of small packages by drones. The Seattle company has grown increasingly frustrated with the FAA’s cautious approach to its plans. Amazon has since moved more research and development of its drones to Britain, Canada and the Netherlands; the company views its partnership with Britain as its most advanced.

The Civil Aviation Authority — the British equivalent of the FAA — said it might also enter into similar partnerships with other commercial drone makers.

“We want to enable the innovation that arises from the development of drone technology by safely integrating drones into the overall aviation system,” Civil Aviation Authority director Tim Johnson said. “These tests by Amazon will help inform our policy and future approach.”

US regulators have been reluctant to permit drone delivery because of safety concerns. Amazon wants to be able to fly its drones at night and beyond the sight of operators. The company said it has developed “sense and avoid” technology to prevent collisions, which it has not been able to broadly test in the US.