The Federal Aviation Administration has given Amazon permission to test a version of its forthcoming drone delivery program, meaning the agency at least sees the potential for drones to deliver packages in the future.
To be clear, the "experimental airworthiness certificate" is not what Amazon has been asking for. Amazon wants a "commercial drone exemption" that would give it wide latitude to test how its drone delivery service would work.
Instead, the experimental airworthiness certificate is what the FAA has long said it's wanted to give to the company, and is laden with restrictions that seemingly make it pretty useless at answering the kinds of questions Amazon will ultimately need to answer. Notably, it'll prevent Amazon from actually delivering packages over any kind of appreciable distance, even in a testing scenario.
"Under the provisions of the certificate, all flight operations must be conducted at 400 feet or below during daylight hours in visual meteorological conditions," the FAA wrote in a press release. "The UAS must always remain within visual line of sight of the pilot and observer."
Visual line of sight may work for early testing, but for actual drone delivery, it'll only work if you want to deliver something to your next door neighbor, not if you're flying halfway across a city.
Amazon and the FAA actually got in a bit of a spat late last year over the issue of a commercial drone exemption versus an experimental one. Under the terms of most experimental exemptions (I have not been able to track down the specifics of this one), every time the drone's design is tinkered with, Amazon will have to file for a new experimental exemption.
"It would be an unreasonable burden on both the FAA and Amazon if we were required to apply for a special airworthiness certificate for every sUAS design or testing configuration while we are in R&D and conducting rapid prototyping," Paul Misener, vice president of global public policy at Amazon, wrote in a letter to the FAA last year.
In December, Amazon suggested that an experimental license could lead the company to push more of its drone delivery development overseas, where regulations are less strict. Amazon did not respond to my request for comment about the experimental certification.
Still, it's notable that the FAA gave Amazon permission to test anything at all. There's too much money and too much potential in delivery drones to keep them grounded forever, but the FAA has signaled, over and over again, that it's not ready to broach the delivery drone question. Its past guidances have specifically singled out dropping packages from a drone as a prohibited activity.
So this must be looked at as progress, even if it's a tiny step.