Amazon: Even with exemption, drone rules still too restrictive

Amazon: Even with exemption, drone rules still too restrictive
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Online sales giant Amazon recently received permission to test fly some drones, but it still isn’t happy.

“The permission the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] granted is more restrictive than are the rules and approvals by which we conduct outdoor testing in the U.K. and elsewhere,” company vice president Paul Misener said in written testimony to the Senate Commerce Committee on Tuesday. 

“Moreover, obtaining permission took far too long, and certainly much longer — over half a year — than it took in other countries.”

For more than a year, Amazon has publicly imagined the possibility of using drones to ship packages to people’s houses, instead of having to send them through the mail. The online shopping giant has long had an indoor testing site in Seattle, but had asked for permission for outdoors tests in order to see how the machines responded to wind, weather and other factors.  

Companies are largely banned from using the flying machines for commercial purposes, but Amazon last week was granted an exemption from that prohibition by the FAA, so long as the drones stay under 400 feet and within sight of the pilot. 

But Amazon has been developing the technology too quickly, Misener said, so the FAA permission slip “has become obsolete."

“We’ve moved on to more advanced designs that we already are testing abroad,” he said.

More generally, U.S. rules for drones — formally known as unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) — is too far behind, the executive added. While new proposed rules from the FAA will help get the U.S. up to speed, “it doesn’t go far enough.”

The Senate panel’s hearing on the subject came the same day that the FAA announced a new plan to speed up authorizations for companies like receive exemptions from its rules.

The agency’s new “blanket” authorizations will allow approved companies to fly small drones under 200 feet anywhere in the country, so long as they steer clear of airports and other off-limits zones. Previously, a company had to file a new application every time it wanted to enter a new airspace, which could take two months.

“The agency expects the new policy will allow companies and individuals who want to use UAS within these limitations to start flying much more quickly than before,” the FAA said.