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Fight or flight: Amazon gets tough with the FAA

Amazon says if the US agency won't play, its drone operations will end up overseas. We'll see whether that threat gets off the ground.

Donna Tam Staff Writer / News
Donna Tam covers Amazon and other fun stuff for CNET News. She is a San Francisco native who enjoys feasting, merrymaking, checking her Gmail and reading her Kindle.
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Donna Tam
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4 min read

Amazon wants to tests its drones in its own backyard, but its threat of going overseas is unlikely to move the FAA. Amazon

For Amazon and its drones, the FAA must seem like a heavy cloud cover that just won't lift.

The online retailer has ambitious plans to try out home delivery of goods via small unmanned aircraft, but needs clearance from the US Federal Aviation Administration to do flight tests outdoors -- clearance that, in Amazon's eyes, can't come soon enough.

The FAA, meanwhile, is in no rush to allow what could be swarms of pilotless vehicles -- not just from Amazon -- into airspace also used by commercial and private planes and helicopters. Operating a commercial fleet of drones is currently illegal, but the government agency has approved a limited number of organizations to conduct flight tests. Amazon was hoping to be among those allowed to do trial runs with its drones.

Amazon's impatience with the oversight process showed through this week in the company's latest letter to the FAA, in which it threatened to move more of its drone trials overseas.

"I fear the FAA may be questioning the fundamental benefits of keeping [unmanned aircraft systems] technology innovation in the United States," Amazon's vice president of global public policy, Paul Misener, wrote in the letter, dated December 7.

The agency said it will continue to review Amazon's situation and has assigned an inspector to "work closely" with the company, according to a statement.

"The FAA is currently waiting for additional information from the company to complete the application," the agency said.

Neither Amazon or the FAA would say what additional information the agency requires of Amazon. There is no set timetable for the process, an FAA spokeswoman said.

The new plea from the world's largest online retailer, which follows a letter Amazon sent in July, underscores the FAA's caution on drones as it works to establish rules for commercial drone operations. Currently, only hobbyists can fly drones outdoors. Until commercial regulations are in place, the FAA is reluctant to approve widespread outdoor testing, meaning that for now Amazon must conduct such flight tests abroad.

"In the absence of timely approval by the FAA to conduct outdoor testing," Amazon said in its letter, "we have begun utilizing outdoor testing facilities outside the United States. These non-U.S. facilities enable us to quickly build and modify our Prime Air vehicles as we construct new designs and make improvements."

Amazon won't say where, but the BBC reported that the company has a drone facility in the UK. It's not the only company that has to go overseas -- Google has been testing drones in Australia.

Meanwhile, Amazon is testing drones in an indoor space near its headquarters in Seattle, Wash.

The slow approach

The deliberate approach by the FAA is in keeping with its mandate.

"The FAA's approach is conservative by necessity. Given the number of rogue operators out there who just don't seem to care, the FAA is moving slowly, although I call it methodically," said Mark A. Dombroff, an aviation attorney who leads a drone practice at McKenna Long & Aldridge.

Despite those concerns, the government should approve Amazon's request, he said.

"I see no problem with them testing [drones] outside so long as they observe all the same parameters that the FAA has defined for any exemption being sought," he said. "I understand that they are agreeable to doing just that, so I think they should get an exemption."

It's likely the government is hesitant given Amazon's ambitious plans for commercial delivery, according to Dombroff.

Amazon last year announced Prime Air, a way to deliver packages that weigh 5 pounds or less in under 30 minutes. More than 86 percent of the millions of products Amazon sells fall in that weight category.

While drones are traditionally associated with military operations, the US government is trying to figure out how these unmanned aircraft will work in a civilian environment. In January, the FAA announced six testing sites that would help the agency determine guidelines for issues related to civilian drone operation, like safety, communications, navigation, air traffic control and privacy. The sites chosen are the University of Alaska, the state of Nevada, Griffiss International Airport in New York, the North Dakota Department of Commerce, Texas A&M University's Corpus Christi campus and Virginia Polytechnic Institute.

Misener said previously that the company wants to run its outdoor testing closer to its home in Washington. It applied for an exemption in July, arguing its service would benefit the public, and would not harm public safety. The FAA previously approved a handful of exemptions in September to moviemakers operating drones under tight controls.

The FAA initially suggested Amazon apply for an experimental permit instead of exemptions, according to Monday's letter. The agency said it has issued more than 200 of these experimental certificates to drone operators since 2005.

These permits are applied to a specific drone model, which Misener said would take too long, given how quickly Amazon is developing new models. The drones went through three iterations in the span of two months, according to the company's initial request, and is likely past its ninth generation by now. Misener called the permit process "lengthy" and "burdensome."

Misener also played the patriotism card in his letter this week, writing that it is "in the public interest" to keep Amazon's drone R&D efforts in the US: "Amazon is increasingly concerned that, unless substantial progress is quickly made in opening up the skies in the United States, the nation is at risk of losing its position as the center of innovation for the [drone] technological revolution, along with the key jobs and economic benefits that come as a result."

Still, the FAA has good reason for its go-slow approach, said Paul Saffo, who forecasts technology trends as a consultant at Discern Analytics.

"The FAA's 'slow' pace might be actually protecting the industry from some horrible accident that would have a vastly greater negative impact," said Saffo. "First we invent our technologies. Then as a society we decide how to use that technology."