Amazon.com blasted federal regulators on Tuesday for being slow to approve commercial drone testing, saying the United States is falling behind other countries when it comes to realizing the economic potential of unmanned aviation technology. Less than a week after the Federal Aviation Administration gave Amazon the green light to test a delivery drone outdoors, the company told U.S. lawmakers that its prototype drone had already become obsolete while the company waited more than six months for the agency's permission. "We don't test it anymore. We've moved on to more advanced designs that we already are testing abroad," said Paul Misener, Amazon.com's vice president for global public policy.
The permission the FAA granted "is more restrictive than are the rules and approvals by which we conduct outdoor testing in the UK and elsewhere," Misener said in written testimony submitted to the Senate Subcommittee on Aviation Operations, Safety and Security. "Moreover, obtaining permission took far too long, and certainly much longer — over half a year — than it took in other countries."
Misener said Amazon had applied on Friday for permission to test a more advanced drone system and now hopes for quicker approval. The Amazon case illustrates the frustrations of many companies and industry lobbyists, who say the U.S. regulatory process is not keeping up with rapidly developing drone technology that could generate new revenues and cost savings for a range of industries.
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Ahead of Tuesday's hearing, the FAA sought to alleviate some of that frustration by announcing a new "blanket" approval that allows companies with exemptions from a U.S. ban on commercial drone use to fly limited operations without seeking new approval for each project. The change affects only flights of up to 200 feet (61 meters) during daylight hours and within a drone operator's line of sight.
Seattle-based Amazon wants to use drones to deliver packages to its customers over distances of 10 miles or more as part of its Amazon Prime Air program.
Margaret Gilligan, FAA's associate administrator for aviation safety, defended the pace of FAA drone actions on safety grounds, saying U.S. airspace is more complex and more heavily traveled than that of other countries. She told the Senate panel that regulators could set new standards for autonomous drone operations within a year.
The FAA recently proposed rules that would lift the current ban on most commercial drone flights, but with several restrictions. Among other constraints, the proposed rules would limit commercial drones to an altitude of 500 feet, allow flights only during daytime and require operators to keep the aircraft in sight at all times. Until the rules are finalized, the current ban will stay in place, though companies can apply for exemptions to use drones for specific business applications.
— Reuters and NBC News staff