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Amazon blasts FAA on pace of drone regulation process

The e-commerce giant says the permit it was just granted is for an aerial vehicle that is already obsolete.

Amazon says this prototype, which the FAA recently said the company could test, is already obsolete. Amazon

The Federal Aviation Administration is taking too long to approve commercial drone regulations, risking the US falling behind other countries in the burgeoning sector of unmanned aircraft, an Amazon executive told US lawmakers on Tuesday.

Less than a week after Amazon was granted a special permit to test its Prime Air delivery drones, Paul Misener, Amazon's vice president for global public policy, said that while the company was grateful the agency approved its testing permit, its prototype had already become obsolete during the months-long application process. As a result, the e-commerce giant applied again Friday for a permit to test an updated aircraft.

"We don't test it anymore. We've moved on to more-advanced designs that we already are testing abroad," Misener told the Senate aviation subcommittee (PDF) on Tuesday. "We are hopeful that this permission will be granted quickly."

Amazon's experience highlights the frustration felt by the drone industry with the agency's regulatory process, which they say is preventing US companies from developing the technology as fast as in other countries, threatening innovation and possible economic benefit.

"Nowhere outside of the United States have we been required to wait more than one or two months to begin testing," Misener said. "This low level of government attention and slow pace are inadequate, especially compared to the regulatory efforts in other countries."

The testimony came the same day that the FAA announced a new process for speeding up authorizations for commercial drone use by companies that obtain an exemption. The "blanket" approval process will allow unmanned aircraft weighing less than 55 pounds to fly up to 200 feet during daylight hours and within the operator's line of site.

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

Amazon hopes to use a drone delivery service dubbed Amazon Prime Air to deliver shoebox-size packages to customers faster than other delivery services, using unmanned aerial vehicles -- about the size of a remote-controlled airplane. The service was unveiled in 2013, but it can't take off until the FAA figures out how it will regulate unmanned aircraft when they're used for commercial purposes.

In February, the FAA took a big step toward legalizing and regulating routine use of commercial drones when it released its proposed requirements for unmanned commercial aircraft. The agency said drones must weigh less than 55 pounds and be operated in daylight within the line of sight of the drone's operator. Additionally, the drones must fly under 500 feet, no faster than 100 miles per hour, and away from manned aircraft.

The creation of new drones and the interest in using them commercially has exploded in the past few years. The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International claims the first three years of integration of drones in the US skies will create more than 70,000 jobs and create an economic impact of $13.6 billion.