New FAA rules on commercial drones may shoot Amazon Prime Air out of the sky

16 Feb 2015

Proposed FAA rules could ban drones that operate outside of the operators’ line of sight, which is of no use to services like Amazon’s Prime Air delivery service, and could stymie the technology’s development.

Amazon has stated that it is still committed to its plan to use aerial drones to automate the delivery of goods to people who live within range of its warehouses.

The US e-commerce giant is currently testing delivery drones at an indoor facility in Washington State and has expanded its R&D team in the UK.

Meanwhile countries like Ireland are working to create the regulatory environment to encourage aerial drone companies to practice R&D and Hailo founder Jay Bregman is understood to be locating his drone start-up Verifly in Dublin.

Companies like Amazon are saying the new rules could take two years to implement, which is far too long in the cut and thrust world of digital commerce.

Not only that but they fear that the regulators have failed to take into account new safety technologies like anti-collision avoidance software as well as improved camera systems.

Ultimately, the rub of the issue is the line-of-sight stipulation that could see other countries overtake the US in the US of commercial drone technology.

Proposed FAA rules on drones

The FAA proposal offers safety rules for small unmanned aircraft systems under 55 pounds conducting non-recreational operations.

The rule would limit flights to daylight and visual-line-of-sight operations. It also addresses height restrictions, operator certification, optional use of a visual observer, aircraft registration and marking, and operational limits.

The proposed rules also include a framework for micro drones under 4.4 pounds.

“Technology is advancing at an unprecedented pace and this milestone allows federal regulations and the use of our national airspace to evolve to safely accommodate innovation,” said Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.

The proposed rule would require an operator to maintain visual line of sight of a small UAS. The rule would allow, but not require, an operator to work with a visual observer who would maintain constant visual contact with the aircraft.

“We have tried to be flexible in writing these rules,” said FAA Administrator Michael Huerta. “We want to maintain today’s outstanding level of aviation safety without placing an undue regulatory burden on an emerging industry.” 

Under the proposed rule, the person actually flying a small unmanned aircraft system would be an “operator.” An operator would have to be at least 17 years old, pass an aeronautical knowledge test and obtain an FAA UAS operator certificate. To maintain certification, the operator would have to pass the FAA knowledge tests every 24 months.

Delivery drone image via Shutterstock

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years