So how big a breakthrough was it for Amazon to receive on March 19 an experimental airworthiness certificate from the Federal Aviation Administration?
Actually, not so much.
Amazon's certificate allows experiments with new drone designs for R&D and crew training, but not for commercial purposes. An airworthiness certificate is fundamentally different from the exemptions some drone operators have gotten from the FAA, under what’s called Section 333. Those with exemptions under Section 333 can perform commercial operations in low-risk, controlled environments.
Hollywood studios, photographers working for realtors, companies who do aerial inspections of plant and railroad infrastructure, or mapping and precision agriculture operations, have received FAA authorization – case-by-case — for certain unmanned aircraft to perform commercial operations. As of March 13, 48 petitions have been granted, according to the FAA.
Amazon’s FAA approval is far more restrictive. Obviously, it wasn’t the company’s first choice, either. Critics describe an experimental airworthiness certificate as “the same document required for a private, non-commercial plane owner to fly a Cessna.”
Nevertheless, Thursday’s approval was still a small win for Amazon. The company is free to test drones outdoors. It has been testing drones indoors near its headquarters in Seattle, and it has begun outdoor tests outside the United States.
The experimental airworthiness certificate, however, also comes with plenty of red tape. Under its provisions, “all flight operations must be conducted at 400 feet or below during daylight hours in visual meteorological conditions,” according to the FAA.
The FAA is also sticking to the agency’s current rules requiring visual line-of-sight operations and a pilot certification. “The pilot actually flying the aircraft must have at least a private pilot’s certificate and current medical certification,” said the FAA.
Amazon is further required to provide monthly data to the FAA. The company must report the number of flights conducted, pilot duty time per flight, unusual hardware or software malfunctions, any deviations from air traffic controllers’ instructions, and any unintended loss of communication links. The FAA includes these reporting requirements in all UAS experimental airworthiness certificates.
FAA proposes rules
Much of what Amazon will or won’t be able to do in the future, however, depends on what will become the final rule after the FAA’s notice of proposed rule making on small UAVs completes the comment period.
The FAA’s proposed guidelines govern the commercial use of drones in the U.S.–regulations that the industry had long anticipated. The Small UAV Coalition, a lobby group representing such drone makers as 3D Robotics, Amazon Prime Air, Google [X] Project Wing, and Parrot, expects the final rule, which will allow for commercial operation, to “take roughly 16 months from this point,” according to the group’s website.
For the time being, the group is lobbying the FAA to ease the Section 333 exemption process. A letter from the Small UAV Coalition complained that “the FAA granted 48 exemptions, while over 650 petitions have been docketed.” Today, these exemptions are the only way for drone operators to legally fly for commercial purposes in the United States.
The lobbying group is also actively working with the FAA to clarify what they see as issues with the FAA’s proposed rule.
Missing from the guideline
The FAA’s proposed guidelines are missing five key items Amazon Prime Air would need to make its dream of package delivery via drones come true.
First, the FAA’s proposal currently doesn’t allow drones to be operated over any person not directly involved in the operation. Under this rule, an Amazon drone would break the law a thousand times just by flying over a small town
Second, the proposal is “silent on allowing companies to test on private property near their facilities,” according to the Small UAV Coalition. Without giving Amazon the ability for rigorous testing in a realistic setting, it’s hard to fathom how package delivery drones could ever become a reality.
Third, limits to the period of operations are an issue. The proposal would limit operations to the period after sunrise and before sunset. This would compromise Amazon’s promise of 30-min. delivery.
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