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!

Germans years ahead on drone delivery tests

A prototype "parcelcopter" of German postal and logistics group Deutsche Post DHL flies in Bonn

German parcel company DHL has been authorized to test a system for drone delivery of small parcels to an island off its northern coast:

Its drone – the “parcelcopter” – can fly at up to 65 km (40 miles) an hour. It will deliver medication and other urgently needed goods to the car-free island of Juist, off Germany’s northern coast, at times when other modes of transport such as flights or ferries are not operating.

If the trial is successful, the craft could be used to deliver such packages to other remote areas or in emergencies.

This seems to be years ahead of anything that has been approved by the FAA in the U.S. But those Germans have a way of beating us in the technology department. I mean, remember the Panzer?

The FAA had only a brief comment: