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Amazon begs Feds for drone test permission slip

Application for test flights reveals more details of Prime Air 'copters

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Amazon.com has written to the USA's Federal Aviation Administration asking to be exempted from rules governing the operation of the “small unmanned aircraft systems” – which it hopes to use in its Prime Air delivery-by-drone service.

The letter points out that “Current FAA rules allow hobbyists and manufacturers of model aircraft wide latitude in flying their sUAS outdoors,” then goes on to say that Amazon, as a business, can't conduct test flights outdoors in the USA. Instead, the company has done its testing indoors or in other nations

Amazon's request is for an exemption to that flight ban so that it can test its drones “... in a confined area over isolated Amazon private property” far away from any other aviation operation or military base but close enough to Seattle that its lab staff can make the trip. The company also promises all tests will take place within line of sight for drone operators, who will hold a pilot's licence, that flights won't go above 400 feet and that only uncontrolled “Class G” airspace will be occupied.

Test drones will return to a designated location if communications links are lost and will also be “geo-fenced” to prevent them from exiting the test area.

Amazon says the exemptions are needed because it “would prefer to keep the focus, jobs, and investment of this important research and development initiative in the United States”. There's also an argument that the sooner the company can do some testing, the sooner it can deliver by air instead of clogging the nation's roads with trucks.

The letter also offers a few insights into Amazon's drones, revealing that the craft it is working on “... travel over 50 miles per hour, and will carry 5-pound payloads”. Also revealed is that test aircraft will weigh less than 55 pounds, and be battery-powered.

When Amazon announced Prime Air, many wondered if it was a stunt. The letter's mention of testing eight-and-ninth-generation aircraft makes that harder to sustain. So does Amazon's assertion it has hired a “growing team of world-renowned roboticists, scientists, aeronautical engineers, remote sensing experts, and a former NASA astronaut”, as it indicates the company is throwing real money at the project. The letter's hints at applications for formal certification of its fleet also make it plain that Amazon is deadly serious about delivery by drone. ®

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