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The FAA Calls Amazon's Bluff on Taking Drone Delivery Overseas

Earlier this week, Amazon threatened to take its drone delivery program overseas—the FAA says that won't happen.
December 10, 2014, 9:35pm
​Image: Amazon

​The Federal Aviation Administration is doing everything it can to stop Amazon from moving research and development overseas, an agency representative said today, after dragging its feet in granting permission for the company to test a new drone delivery service.

Amazon already conducts some of its Prime Air drone delivery research and development in the United Kingdom (the rest, it does in a large warehouse in the United States). But, earlier this week, an Amazon executive told the FAA that "without the ability to test outdoors in the United States soon, we will have no choice but to divert even more of our [drone] research and development resources abroad," according to a Wall Street Journal report.

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That prospect has some lawmakers spooked. During a two-hour hearing on drone regulation, several lawmakers with the House of Representatives Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure noted that they were worried other companies would also take their drone business outside the United States.

We know they are not satisfied

When members of Congress asked point-blank what the FAA is doing to work with Amazon, Peggy Gilligan, of the aviation safety branch, said she's confident the internet giant won't be taking more of its business elsewhere.

"I'm satisfied we'll reach an agreement to support what they're trying to do," she said. "We've worked closely with Amazon, we've been in close contact with Amazon as early as a year ago."

That apparently hasn't been enough time to actually hammer out an agreement, however. The hangup, according to Gilligan, is that Amazon has asked for a commercial drone exemption from the agency, while the FAA wants to issue Amazon an "experimental" certificate, a more restrictive designation that would give the company permission to fly and test drones, but not charge anyone to do so.

Amazon isn't happy with that. "The FAA may be questioning the fundamental benefits of keeping [unmanned-aircraft] technology innovation in the United States," the company suggested in the letter.

At the hearing, Gilligan said the FAA believes that a research certification will cover what Amazon wants to do.

"We think that will fit their needs better," she said. "We know they are not satisfied that they have to go with that path, but I'm satisfied we'll reach an agreement."

Even if Amazon does get permission to test its drones in the US, there's no guarantee that it'll be allowed to ever start actually delivering packages with them. The FAA has made several indications that it doesn't plan to allow small drones to fly outside the line-of-sight of an operator, an obvious impediment to delivery drones.

So, even if the FAA lets Amazon test its drones, does the agency even ultimately want them buzzing around?