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Amazon gets FAA clearance to test delivery drones

Certificate allows the Internet retail giant to conduct research, development and crew training for its Prime Air delivery drones.

Amazon has been granted FAA permission to test its aerial drones for delivering packages. Amazon

Amazon's ambitions to use drones to deliver packages may get off the ground yet.

The Federal Aviation Administration on Thursday issued an "experimental airworthiness certificate" to Amazon, allowing the Internet retail giant to conduct research, development and crew training for its Prime Air delivery drones. The certificate allows the unmanned aerial vehicles to be remotely controlled by licensed pilots at altitudes lower than 400 feet during daylight hours, the agency said in a statement.

Amazon made a splash in December 2013 when it announced it was testing a drone delivery service. Dubbed Amazon Prime Air, the idea is to deliver shoebox-size packages to customers with unmanned aerial vehicles -- about the size of a remote-controlled airplane -- faster than other delivery services. Initial excitement over the futuristic-sounding delivery process was tempered by the realization that the service wouldn't be dropping off packages anytime soon. Besides continued testing, the company also faces strict privacy regulations from US lawmakers and the FAA.

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 provide an economic impact of $13.6 billion.

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.

Those new rules allowed a broad use of drones to shoot TV shows or movies, survey agricultural land or inspect a bridge, but they nixed the potential use of delivery drones, like those envisioned by Amazon. However, the rules are still subject to change before being finalized.

The FAA certificate also requires Amazon to provide the agency with monthly data about its testing activity, including the number of flights conducted and the hours logged by pilots per flight. The company will also be required to document any hardware or software malfunctions, any deviations from air traffic controllers' instructions, and any unintended loss of communication links.