Last week the Federal Aviation Administration finally gave Amazon permission to begin test flying its delivery drones outdoors. But in testimony before a Senate subcommittee today, Amazon argued that the government wasn't moving nearly fast enough. "This approval came last Thursday, and we’re eager to get flying here as we have been abroad," said Paul Misener, Amazon's vice president for Global Public Policy. But "while the FAA was considering our applications for testing, we innovated so rapidly that the [drone] approved last week by the FAA has become obsolete. We don’t test it anymore. We’ve moved on to more advanced designs that we already are testing abroad."
The FAA took one and half years to give Amazon permission to fly one very specific model of drone. Misener compared this to what is happening overseas. "Nowhere outside of the United States have we been required to wait more than one or two months to begin testing, and permission has been granted for operating a category of UAS, giving us room to experiment and rapidly perfect designs without being required to continually obtain new approvals for specific UAS vehicles."
Amazon wants minimal involvement from human pilots
Misener also took issue with the recently proposed rules from the FAA that would govern commercial drone flight in the US. The agency wants all drones to have a human pilot and to stay within that person's line of sight at all times. A better system, he argued, "must allow UAS applications to take advantage of a core capability of the technology: to fly with minimal human involvement, beyond visual line of sight." This kind of flight might have been dangerous a few years ago, but "automated UAS sense and avoid technology and on-board intelligence address these factors and will mitigate the related risks."
If the FAA proceeds with its current rules and timetable, Amazon believes it will fall far behind the rest of the world. Misener applauded new policies from the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), which treat drones as a new category of aircraft, instead of lumping them in with manned aircraft. Academic experts who study the drone industry agree that unless something changes, American companies will move the research and development of commercial drones overseas to take advantage of the more permissive environment.
"Innovators will have a clear path towards flying in Europe."
"Granted, the path to that future is a challenging technical problem, but what EASA has done is removed arbitrary regulatory hurdles, allowing engineers to do what they do best — design and innovate," wrote Gregory McNeal, an associate professor of law and public policy at Pepperdine. "The new regulatory framework means that these innovators will have a clear path towards flying in Europe. They can plan and design their products to address safety concerns, rather than plan around arbitrary rules based on the last century’s aviation technology."
Amazon reiterated its plan to employ a fleet of drones that would deliver packages in under half an hour to customers within a 10-mile radius. "We are grateful for the FAA’s newly released [rules], so far as it goes. But it doesn’t go far enough," said Misener. "Unlike the planning by the national and multinational groups with whom I met in Europe earlier this month, the FAA is not adequately addressing compelling UAS applications that involve highly automated operations beyond visual line of sight."
Misener stopped short of asking legislators to step in an propose new rules that would supersede the FAA, although he hinted the Congress could provide the agency with more "impetus". In the meantime, Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) is reportedly considering introducing such a bill, the "Commercial UAV Modernization Act," to speed up the deployment of drones in US businesses.