Amazon has asked the Federal Aviation Administration if it can start testing delivery drones in its own facilities in a bid to speed up the rollout of its Amazon Prime Air shipping service. The company sent a letter to the FAA this week, in which it requested the opportunity to carry out research and development on the unmanned aerial vehicles designed to carry packages to Amazon customers. Currently, if the Seattle-based company wants to test new designs for its drones outside, it has to travel to one of six FAA-approved sites dotted around the country. If its request for exemption from FAA rules is granted, it would mean the company's R&D team — which includes an ex-NASA astronaut — wouldn't need to leave the Amazon campus to trial new drones.
Amazon is testing its ninth-generation drones
The retail giant has been rapidly iterating on drone technology since it announced plans for unmanned aerial delivery late last year. In April, Amazon boss Jeff Bezos said the company had already tested the fifth and sixth iterations of the unmanned aerial vehicles it plans to use to deliver goods, with the seventh and eighth being designed. In Amazon's request for exemption, it says it's now ready to test the eighth- and ninth-generation vehicles.
In the same document, Amazon offers up some details about its planned delivery drones, saying that it plans for them to be capable of travelling over 50 miles per hour while carrying up to 5 pounds worth of products. Compared to other lightweight drones in the consumer market, that's fast — DJI's $1,200 Phantom 2 quadcopter device has a top speed of just over 33 mph. The request for exemption also states that drones will remain within line of sight of observers during testing, and will stop their journey and return to a specific point if their communications link is severed.
The devices it wants to test will have a maximum weight of 55 pounds
But Amazon's request for exemption doesn't outline full technical specifications of the drones it plans to test. The company has previously said it wants its drones to be able to carry a 5-pound package up to 10 miles in 30 minutes — a longer and more strenuous journey than other devices on the consumer market are capable of. Battery life and the weight of the device are key issues: the heavier the drone and the payload it carries, the more likely it is to run out juice mid-flight and end up "delivering" your package in pieces to someone's garden. Amazon hasn't outlined the battery technology its prototype drones are using, but the request for exemption notes the devices it wants to test will have a maximum weight of 55 pounds, markedly heavier than most other drones available today.
Amazon says allowing it to test drones on its private property is no more than what "thousands of hobbyists and manufacturers of model aircraft do every day," but because it is a commercial enterprise, it has been forced to conduct tests indoors or in other countries. Should it be granted FAA exemption as a commercial enterprise, the company says that seeing Amazon-branded drones in the sky will become "as normal as seeing mail trucks on the road today."