Amazon gets OK to test drones in rural Washington state

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has granted Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN) approval to begin outdoor field tests of drones, The New York Times reports.

In a letter to the FAA in December, Amazon said that to date, much of its Prime Air research and development, including flight testing operations, had been conducted inside its laboratory and indoor testing facilities in Washington state.

However, it said it needed to move beyond indoor testing if it is to "realize the consumer benefits of Amazon Prime Air." It also noted that it had started using outdoor testing facilities outside the United States but did not say where.

To ensure safety, Amazon said it will conduct its tests on private property in a rural area of Washington state, away from people or crowds. It also said it would do the tests under the supervision of trained pilots, at low altitudes below 400 feet above ground, and use geofencing technology to keep the vehicles confined to the test area.

Amazon says Prime Air has great potential to enhance the services it provides by providing rapid parcel delivery that would also increase the safety and efficiency of the transportation system. The FAA has said it will allow more commercial uses of manned drones but it has not said when it will allow autonomous drones by companies like Amazon, the Times report noted. 

Meanwhile, CommLawBlog reports that the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) has begun a public comment process to address "best practices" for the commercial and private use of drones. The NTIA is posing a range of questions covering three broad categories: privacy, transparency and accountability. The public comment period is open until April 20.

The blog also points out that the FCC has yet to open a proceeding on drones, even though their reliance on spectrum likely would affect Wi-Fi and cellular spectrum users.  

Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) recently received FCC approval to use drones in tests over the next six months in a 520-square-mile area east of Albuquerque, N.M. The tests will use drones made by Titan Aerospace, which was acquired by Google last year.

In a Notice of Inquiry on spectrum bands above 25 GHz and 5G, some of the publicly filed comments with the FCC mentioned drones as well. For example, Google suggested the higher bands could be used for high-altitude balloons--like what it uses in Project Loon--or for unmanned aerial vehicles, in areas where deployment of terrestrial networks is uneconomic.

As The Wall Street Journal points out, drones face the same challenges as other wireless devices: power and weather. The battery issue for drones is particularly acute: the bigger the package, the more power they need to fly. Unreliable location data may play a role as well in terms of how quickly they can actually be used for commercial purposes.

For more:
- see this New York Times article (sub. req.)
- see this Wall Street Journal article (sub. req.)
- see this CommLawBlog post

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