One of Amazon.com’s early drone delivery prototypes takes flight carrying a small payload. (Photo: Getty Images)
By Ryan Mac and Frank Bi
Amazon.com AMZN -1% is not pleased with the pace by which the Federal Aviation Administration is addressing the commercial use of drones and it let the public know in a congressional hearing on Tuesday.
In a Washington, D.C. meeting with Senate members of the Subcommittee on Aviation, Operations, Safety and Security, Paul Misener, Amazon’s vice president of global public policy, criticized the FAA for lacking “impetus” to develop timely policies for the operations of unmanned aerial systems (UASs or UAVs). Amazon, which has been pushing for greater regulatory clarity and experimental permission for its Prime Air drone delivery service, said that the United States has been far less progressive than other countries with its unmanned aircraft regulations that have, in part, stifled innovation.
“Although the United States is catching up in permitting current commercial UAS testing, the United States remains behind in planning for future commercial UAS operations,” Misener told the senators.
While Misener remained polite with his points, he made Amazon’s message clear: the U.S. is simply not doing enough for businesses that want to use drones, whether that be for the delivery of packages or the inspection of power lines. Ironically, his comments came less than three hours after the FAA issued an interim policy that streamlined the approval process for commercial drone use, granting companies that had gained exemptions under current law a “blanket” permission to fly UAVs anywhere in the U.S. with certain restrictions. Currently, it is illegal for businesses to operate drones unless they have an exemption from the FAA.
Dressed in a light gray suit and removing his glasses to address the senators, Misener stressed the differences between the U.S. and places like Europe, where the company is already testing outdoors in the United Kingdom. “Nowhere outside of the United States have we been required to wait more than one or two months to begin testing,” he said. That was supported by Senator Cory Booker, who passionately suggested that if the FAA been around during the time of the Wright brothers, other countries would have had commercial planes flying before a U.S. aircraft got off the ground.
“This is what is hard for me to believe,” Booker said. “The slowness at which this country is moving.”
While some had expected Booker to introduce temporary legislation to govern the commercial use of drones on Tuesday, the junior senator from New Jersey did not use Tuesday’s hearing to introduce a bill. However, those familiar with Booker’s plans said that that he is still working on a bill that would give businesses the right to use drones until the FAA settles on final rules in a process that could take more than two years.
“I’m not sure how long that would take,” said Senator Maria Cantwell from Washington. As the ranking Democratic member on the subcommittee, she too discussed the “competitive disadvantages” that American companies faced with current rules.
Among those companies is Amazon, which hails from Cantwell’s home state, and only last week received an airworthiness certificate to test its delivery drones outdoors in the U.S. It was a nice gesture from the FAA, said Misener, however, it did little to advance his company’s approach. It took about a year receive approval–about six months more than in other countries–and was severely limiting by only approving one model of drone to be tested.
“We innovated so rapidly that the UAS approved last week by the FAA has become obsolete,” he said. “We don’t test it anymore. We’ve moved on to more advanced designs that we already are testing abroad.”
Other senators in the hearing stressed potential privacy concerns that come with flying drones with video capability. Democrat Edward Markey of Massachusetts, who previously introduced a bill on managing the data collected by drones, demonstrated his concerns by holding up a blue and orange UAV manufactured by French company Parrot.
“I think we can all understand that one of the primary concerns that people have about these unmanned vehicles is privacy,” said Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte, the subcommittee’s chairwoman. ”UASs can significantly lower the threshold for abusive surveillance.”
Still, most of the conversation drifted back to the topic of commercial drone use and the potential for the expansion of drone regulations. Currently companies must file for case-by-case exemptions, or “333 exemptions,” in order to get FAA permission to use a drone in a business situation. To date that FAA has received more than 750 requests and approved 64, with 10 happening on Tuesday alone. Along with that, the new policy put forth by the FAA on Tuesday, grants all exemption holders an additional authorization certificate that allows operators to fly anywhere across the U.S. under 200 feet, within the line of sight and five miles away from an airport. Previously, commercial drone operators were confined to a certain block of airspace.
Some drone proponents are still not happy with the FAA’s latest rule change. The 200-foot “blanket” authorization, “doesn’t get it done,” said Michael Drobac, executive director of a lobbying group called the Small UAV Coalition, of which Amazon, Google GOOGL -0.59% and GoPro are members. Commercial operators will still need to go through the same traditional regulatory procedures for any flights above 200 feet, he pointed out before Tuesday’s hearing.
The country’s laws will have to be far more progressive than even the FAA’s latest concession if Amazon is to have a chance at drone delivery. Introduced by CEO Jeff Bezos on “60 Minutes” more than a year ago, drone delivery has only been tested in the U.S. at indoor facilities and within visual sight of operators. That last requirement will have to be nixed if packages are to be delivered autonomously over several miles to customers.
“It’s a technology challenge that still needs to be addressed,” said Margaret Gilligan, the FAA’s associate administrator for aviation safety, on whether drones could be trusted to fly beyond human sight. She noted that drone companies must increase the ability of drones to “sense and avoid” air traffic or other objects, though she mentioned that it may be possible in the future.
“The FAA has turned the corner,” Misener said at the congressional meeting. ”Things are getting better with respect to testing, [but it needs to improve] with future planning.”
“Let the records show you sufficiently sucked up to the FAA,” Booker replied, jokingly.
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