Amazon has slammed the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for acting too slowly in drawing up regulations for the commercial use of drones, and also voiced disappointment at the slow response to its special request to test its Prime Air unmanned aerial system (UAS) in the U.S.
Speaking on Tuesday at a hearing of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, Paul Misener, Amazon’s VP for global public policy, said the U.S. “remains behind in planning for future commercial UAS operations,” adding that his company is “allowed to innovate in other countries in ways that we cannot in the U.S.”
His remarks come a week after the FAA finally gave Amazon more freedom to test its Prime Air delivery drone in the U.S. However, the permission appears to have come too late for the e-commerce giant because the UAS that the FAA green-lighted “has already become obsolete” and is no longer being tested, Misener said.
The executive told the committee his company had waited around 18 months for FAA approval, a time period so long that Amazon decided to take its drone-based R&D program overseas where it’s currently testing a more advanced version of its Prime Air drone.
“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,” Misener said at the hearing.
It’s feared that the FAA’s apparent reluctance to be more flexible in its drone policy could push more American businesses keen to develop the technology to bases overseas, taking investment and jobs with them.
Misener revealed at the hearing that Amazon applied to the FAA for permission to fly the latest version of its Prime Air drone just last week, adding that he was “hopeful that this permission will be granted quickly.”
He also pushed the FAA to take another look at its stipulation that drones have to stay in the operator’s line of sight. If that rule remains, Amazon’s dream of delivering goods by drone will never get off the ground. He argued that while it may have been a sensible restriction a few years ago, the technology has since moved on. Indeed, NASA is currently working on an air traffic control system designed to manage drones flown by computers over great distances.
In a further development Tuesday, and apparently in direct response to continued pressure from Amazon and other companies keen to use drones in their work, the FAA said it was easing restrictions for the small group of businesses that already have permission to operate drones on a commercial basis. Until now, such companies had to get approval from the FAA on a flight-by-flight basis, though now they can make unlimited flights as long as they respect current guidelines, which include keeping the drones away from airports.
While Misener will be hoping the FAA continues to become more flexible in its approach to drone testing, as well as speed up its decision-making process, it’s still far from certain whether Amazon’s ambitious plan to deliver packages to customers by flying machine will ever become a reality.