sUAS Apples to Amazon Oranges

Amazon Prime Air

Two news items on drone rules have some reporters comparing sUAS apples to Amazon oranges. The first is that, yes, hallelujah, the FAA expects to finalize its sUAS rules within a year.  The other news is the congressional testimony of Amazon VP Paul Misener that his company’s drone delivery technology will be ready to roll out in about a year, as well.

Several reporters, including the one cited above, have leapt to the conclusion that Amazon PrimeAir can start deliveries as soon as the final sUAS rule has been published.  See here and here.  Not so fast.

The NPRM that will be finalized next year only contemplates flights that are remotely operated by a single pilot, within visual line of sight.  While the NPRM invites comments on using drones for air carriers, Amazon’s PrimeAir business plan contemplates something much more complex – multiple, autonomous flights, well beyond visual line of sight.

The Daily Mail, of all publications, gets it right – that the launch of PrimeAir will completely depend on the FAA making major changes to the proposed rules. It is therefore highly unlikely that the final sUAS rule will address Amazon’s proposed method for drone delivery.

In fact, it is more likely that the FAA would issue an entirely separate NPRM for autonomous drone delivery services like that contemplated by Amazon. This would, in turn, be subject to the usual notice and comment period.

The upshot is that, while we are thankfully only a year away from having a final sUAS rule for remote-controlled, visual line of sight operations, we are, unfortunately, probably still years away from autonomous drone deliveries.

This could change, of course, should Congress decide to intervene. But for now, no such discussion appears to be on the table.

Amazon Throws Down a Gauntlet to the FAA

Prime in the air

The Wall Street Journal reports (behind the pay wall) that Amazon is losing patience with the FAA, and has threatened to move more of its operations abroad if it doesn’t receive permission to test-fly in the U.S., soon.

“Without the ability to test outdoors in the United States soon, we will have no choice but to divert even more of our [drone] research and development resources abroad,” Paul Misener, Amazon’s vice president of global public policy, said in a letter to the FAA Sunday reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.

Amazon petitioned the FAA in July to allow it to go forward with testing its drone delivery system, on privately owned land under highly controlled conditions.  The FAA came back in October, asking Amazon why it didn’t seek an experimental aircraft certificate.  Amazon’s sensibly responded that an experimental certificate wouldn’t give it the flexibility it needed.

Translation (we think): An experimental certificate would require Amazon to jump through too many hoops every time it makes design changes. And Amazon needs to have the option of making design changes on the fly.

But this is just mind-blowing:

The FAA also asked Amazon why its delivery drones are in the public interest[!] Mr. Misener responded that they would help deliver packages faster and make the overall transportation system safer and more efficient. “I fear the FAA may be questioning the fundamental benefits of keeping [unmanned-aircraft] technology innovation in the United States,” he wrote.

No kidding.  The government might as well ask why the internet is in the public interest, or why roads and bridges are in the public interest.

This particular colloquy, we fear, suggests that the problem might be worse than we had ever imagined.

Amazon Prime Air to Begin Testing in UK

Prime in the air

That “whoosh” sound you hear might be the sound of jobs and investment going overseas:

Amazon is now expanding its R&D operations in Cambridge – two years after buying Cambridge-based startup Evi Technologies – to take advantage of the talent pool of academics and researchers in the area. The lab will focus on Prime Air, Amazon’s name for its drones project, the blog TechCrunch reported.

Amazon has advertised a number of aviation-related UK jobs in recent weeks, such as a flight operations engineer for Amazon Prime Air: “Flight test experience, manned or unmanned, is preferred,” the advertisement stated. Other roles include a senior research scientist position and a site leader job.

It’s probably correct that Amazon Prime Air has been preparing to conduct testing in the UK for some time, and perhaps this project would have commenced regardless of regulatory progress, or the lack thereof, in the U.S. But one can’t help thinking that FAA foot-dragging is already costing us, dearly.

Prime Air Is Hiring

Amazon Prime Air

Back when Jeff Bezos announced Prime Air on an installment of 60 Minutes, a lot of people (many of whom should have known better) dismissed it out of hand as a publicity stunt. We, on the other hand, were inspired by the announcement, and ultimately decided to create this blog based in part on what we saw as the serious potential behind Amazon’s efforts.

Subsequent events have borne out the seriousness of Amazon’s goals. Earlier this year, we reported on Amazon’s application to the FAA for an exemption to allow them to test Prime Air at their U.S. facility in the Seattle area. That application is still pending, as far as we know at this time.

But in case you’re still not convinced, you might want to consider the fact that Prime Air is now hiring. Yep, that’s right. A listing of currently open positions can be found here. Spread the word!

Amazon gets backing from UAS association

Amazon Prime Air

The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) has given its backing to Amazon’s application for permission to test its Prime Air drone delivery service.

In a letter Tuesday (download PDF), AUVSI president and CEO Michael Toscano urged the U.S. Department of Transportation to grant Amazon an exemption that would allow the online giant to conduct immediate outdoor tests of its commercial drones.

AUVSI points out that allowing Amazon to test will help spur job growth in an industry that promises to employ tens of thousands, at the very least.

The report also contains some interesting details regarding Amazon’s efforts:

According to Amazon, it is currently testing a range of capabilities including agility, flight duration and sense-and-avoid sensors on its eighth and ninth-generation aerial vehicles. All of the tests are being carried out in indoor facilities or at overseas locations and involve battery-driven, rotor-powered, unmanned aerial vehicles weighing less than 55 pounds.

As we have previously noted, it is unfortunate that Amazon is currently being forced to conduct its outdoor tests overseas. We should be developing this knowledge base here, in the U.S.

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.