Amazon: FAA too slow on drone test approvals

Remember the Amazon drone the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approved for outdoor testing in rural Washington state? Turns out, it's a little too late, according to Amazon.

Paul Misener, vice president for Global Public Policy at Amazon, testified during a U.S. Senate hearing on drones--aka unmanned aircraft systems (UAS)--that while the company is grateful the FCC granted permission to conduct UAS testing outdoors, last week's approval came much longer than it takes to get the OK in other countries.

"The good news is that, while the FAA was considering our applications for testing, we innovated so rapidly that the UAS approved last week by the FAA has become obsolete," Misener said. "We don't test it anymore. We've moved on to more advanced designs that we already are testing abroad."

On Friday, Amazon asked the FAA for permission to fly one of the more advanced UAS in the United States, as well, and "we are hopeful that this permission will be granted quickly," he said.

Understandably, privacy is a hot topic when it comes to drones. "Consumer privacy is an area in which the U.S. approach to UAS regulation already is particularly strong," Misener said. "We recognize that UAS technology could cause privacy infringement if commercial operations are not undertaken in a sensible, privacy-conscious manner. Prime Air is a future delivery service, not a surveillance operation, and we will respect the privacy of every person, with stringent privacy policies accessible to all."

There also is a fear that the U.S. is falling behind other nations in the development of drones for commercial purposes. Besides indoor testing at its Seattle facility, Amazon Prime Air has been conducting outdoor R&D flight testing in multiple locations abroad, and it has done so with minimal aviation regulatory requirements, Misener said. Nowhere outside of the United States has it been required to wait more than one or two months to begin testing, and it has been able to rapidly perfect designs without being required to continually obtain new approvals for specific UAS vehicles, he added.  

During the hearing, Jeff VanderWerff, a Michigan farmer representing the American Farm Bureau Federation, said he sees both opportunities and pitfalls in using drones for farming operations. They can be used to spot insect infestations, for example, and allow for spot treatments of crops, but they also pose privacy and security concerns.

"The biggest fear that farmers face in data collection is government accessing their data and using it against them," he said. "Questions abound within the agricultural community about 'who owns and controls the data.'"

Under a new policy unveiled this week, the FAA will grant a certificate of waiver or authorization (COA) for drone flights at or below 200 feet to any UAS operator with a Section 333 exemption for aircraft that weigh less than 55 pounds, operate during daytime Visual Flight Rules (VFR) conditions, operate within visual line of sight (VLOS) of the pilots, and stay certain distances away from airports or heliports.

For more:
- see this CNET story
- see The Verge story 
- view a webcast of the hearing

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