Amazon's plans for a drone delivery service took a big step forward Thursday when the Federal Aviation Administration gave the company permission to begin flight tests.
Amazon wants to use drones to deliver small packages to people's doorsteps, eyeing a future when its deliveries are fully automated. The ambitious plans have received a lot of attention but haven't gotten off the ground because of regulations that restrict commercial drone operation.
That's now changed with the FAA's issuance of an "experimental airworthiness certificate" to subsidiary Amazon Logistics that will allow for research and development flights.
Tests will have to be confined to daylight hours, up to an altitude of 400 feet in good weather conditions. The drone must remain in sight of the operator, who must have a private pilot's license, and Amazon has to submit a monthly report to the FAA that includes the number of flights conducted, pilot duty time per flight, unusual hardware or software malfunctions, any deviations from air traffic controllers instructions, and any unintended loss of communication links.
The FAA began issuing exemptions to its commercial drone ban last year, when a number of movie and TV production companies got permission to fly drones in circumstances similar to those laid down for Amazon. Additional exemptions covering aerial photography, surveying, and agricultural uses have also been issued.
Amazon's plans appear to be some of the most ambitious.
In part, they propose a new drone operator license that would remove the need to hold a pilot's license. Drones would be restricted to 500 feet in altitude, a speed of 100 miles per hour and daytime operation. Drones would also be prohibited from flying over anyone except those involved in its operation.
For Amazon to realize its dream, it will have to work out a way for drones to navigate safely to addresses avoiding trees, lampposts, buildings, people, and other drones. They would also have to land safely and take off again without risk of harming anyone nearby.