Amazon seeks FAA permission to test drone delivery

Amazon’s share price is apparently up, in part on news that it has sought FAA approval to test its drone delivery system:

Amazon is asking the government to allow testing of its new delivery mechanism — small package-carrying drones that can travel at up to 50 miles per hour. The company notes in its letter that its drones can now carry loads up to 5 pounds, which it notes covers 86% of all products sold on Amazon.

There’s a lot of confusion in the article, some of which appears to be the fault of Amazon, itself. Let’s begin with this statement:

The FAA, which controls the skies above the US, has prohibited companies from testing drones — only making an exception for hobbyists

Well, not exactly. The FAA doesn’t control all of the skies above the U.S., but only that part of the skies over which it has traditionally exercised jurisdiction. As well, the “exception” for hobbyists is not tethered to the ban on testing, and the FAA has yet to enact regulations defining “hobbyists.” The comment period on the definition has yet to close.

More to the point, the NTSB judge ruled in Huerta v. Pirker that the FAA had failed to draw any meaningful distinction between someone who operates a model aircraft for pleasure and one who operates the same or similar model aircraft for profit. As far as anyone can tell at the moment, the only effective prohibition at the moment applies to aircraft that are operated beyond line of sight – i.e., by methods other than those traditionally employed by hobbyists.

This brings us to the next point:

Amazon argues that its drone testing will actually be safer than that of hobbyists, flying under 400 feet and “in a confined area over isolated Amazon private property” away from airports, government installations, and densely populated areas.

But would they be operated within line of sight? Amazon’s letter to the FAA provides additional detail regarding its proposed testing operations:

The sUAS will (i) have a maximum weight of less than 55 pounds; (ii) be rotorpowered
via a battery source; and (iii) be U.S.‐registered and display marks in accordance with 14 C.F.R. Part 45, Subpart C.5

Our sUAS R&D testing under this exemption will be conducted (i) within the visual line of sight of the operator and/or one or more observers; (ii) at less than 400 feet AGL; and (iii) within Class G airspace.

The operations will be conducted in a confined area over isolated Amazon private property located a sufficient distance away from (i) any airport, heliport, seaplane base, spaceport or other location with aviation activities; (ii) any densely populated areas; and (iii) any military or U.S. government installations or airfields.

All operations will remain within the lateral and vertical boundaries of the operating area, taking into account all factors, including wind, gross weight and glide distances, that may affect the capability of the sUAS to remain within the airspace boundary; moreover, the integrity of the operating area will be reinforced by geo‐fencing, including the ceiling height of no more than 400 feet AGL.

Given these parameters, it is tempting to suggest that Amazon could rely on the Pirker decision and not seek permission from the FAA. But of course, the last thing Amazon wants is to give the FAA an excuse to shut it down. Amazon is trying to play nice, here. The question is whether the FAA will do the right thing.

Earlier in the letter, Amazon indicates that it has thus far been forced to conduct testing either indoors or in foreign countries that already have regulations in place. The fact that Amazon has been forced to conduct its testing abroad is a shame. The FAA should promptly grant Amazon’s request.