Amazon urges US to let its drones take flight

The company has been testing drone deliveries in the UK and says that it will expand that research in the country if the US government doesn't loosen its grip on test flights.

Amazon's Prime Air is having trouble getting off the ground in the US. Amazon

E-commerce giant Amazon has issued a stern letter to the US government, warning that if the bureaucracy doesn't loosen its grip on drone research, the company will need to move more of its testing overseas.

In a letter sent earlier this month to the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Amazon's vice president of global public policy, Paul Misener, said that his company wants to begin testing a drone-delivery service outdoors. The FAA, however, has so far banned such testing, and Misener said that situation could force Amazon's hand.

"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," Misener wrote in the December 7 letter to the FAA, posted to Regulations.gov on Monday.

Amazon revealed last year that it was working on small, unmanned aerial vehicles, otherwise known as drones, that would deliver packages to customers' homes. The drone service, to be called Prime Air, would pick up packages at Amazon fulfillment centers with the goal of delivering them to household front doors within 30 minutes.

Before all of that can happen, however, Amazon needs to conduct extensive research to see how the system would work and whether it's safe. Amazon has been conducting indoor drone testing in the US, but has been going outside with its research in the UK. The letter to the FAA says that if the government agency doesn't loosen restrictions, Amazon could be forced to spend nearly all of its time researching in the UK.

The big issue isn't solely that research must be conducted overseas, it's that the use of drones for commercial use could be delayed in the US while other countries around the world get it first. Indeed, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has said on numerous occasions that it's possible Amazon's drone-delivery service would make its way to customers in Europe before it can service US customers.

The FAA has been loath to allow drone testing outdoors. The government agency is concerned about the impact it could have on air space and ground safety and will only allow licenses after strict review. Some companies have gone so far as to simply bring drones out in deserts in the US to test them without asking for FAA permission. Amazon has gone the legal route, asking in July for a license to fly. So far, that hasn't come down.

At some point in the future, regulations on the use of commercial drones will be put into effect. The FAA has already drafted rules that are now under review by other government agencies. According to the Journal's sources, who claim to have seen the draft rules, the FAA will require that any drone must be kept within sight during operation. If that's true, that rule alone would scuttle Amazon's plans for a drone-delivery service.

Amazon declined to comment beyond what it had said in the letter.

(Via Wall Street Journal)

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