Americas Delivery Drones

That Amazon Prime Air letter…


Paul Misener, Amazon’s VP of global public policy has caused a stir, but of course dear reader you know Amazon are already offshoring the development with rumored trials in India and job opportunities in Cambridge, England.

One thing surprised me in the Dear FAA letter, the assertion that the USA is still ahead in the development of RPAS.

It’s not.

The USA lacks day to day commercial operational experience.

One only has to look at the copycat campaign #TGIF mistletoe drone incident to see that operators are not trained and in that case don’t accept responsibility for their actions. I actually feel a little bit sorry for TGI Friday, the UK campaign was professionally made in a closed set and images and video from that are appearing on news websites all over the world as being the incident scene.  Its all press for the brand I suppose.

People are quick to blame a certain brand of multirotor for all the examples of poor airmanship occurring in America. Very often though its people calling themselves professionals with no formal qualifications and deep pockets. Commercial pressure pushes them down a path perhaps best left alone. A recent example of that was another drone injury at the Great Bull Run, Virginia. A comedy of errors from start to finish.

When the first 333 exemptions were issued at sUAS News we called them a smoke screen. A little something from the FAA to say, “Hey we are doing something”. How much can be learnt from a number of operators that you can count on two hands and two feet in a very restricted environment? No wonder Amazon and others are applying pressure on the FAA the 333 process seems very unfair.

I find it rather amusing that even where I live, South Africa the SACAA is preparing to launch rules that will allow beyond visual line of sight flight and commercial operation. Applying a simplified version of full sized licencing. All well ahead of the USA. No doubt these standards will be widely applied across Africa once in place. It will be argued that the USA has more air traffic than South Africa, but I would be willing to bet it has far more wide open space. Plenty of power and pipelines needing inspection out in the middle of nowhere. Shell and other multinational companies are integrating RPAS into their day to day operations, saving money and inspecting just such infrastructure.

What are Shell and the like going to do when regulations finally happen in America? Use operators that claim they are professionals or those with years of logged flight hours flying platforms that are proven? 

If the FAA had created restrictive but workable rules for small unmanned aircraft five years ago it would have a wealth of data and best practice knowledge to call upon when addressing Amazon. It could have relaxed the rules as they gained experience. Instead the FAA has not kept up with the rapid pace of technology development and is constantly behind the knowledge curve.

By acting slowly it has allowed a black hole to form into which for an ever smaller sum of cash, aerial photographers are falling en-mass. Without clear guidance anything goes. Personally I don’t think the FAA has a chance of educating these users, the ship has sailed.

The industry should start shouting that they need to catch up, not pretend to be ahead of the rest of the world. Only then perhaps will enough political pressure be applied.

From next year companies from Africa will join those from Australia, Canada, China and Europe legally gaining the operational experience not possible in America.

Second place is first loser.

Re:Supplement to Amazon Petition for Exemption – Docket No. FAA-2014-0474

Dear Mr. Williams:

Thank you for your letter, dated October 29, in which you seek additional information to supplement Amazon’s petition for exemption submitted on July 9 under Section 333 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012. I am writing in reply.

As described in our petition, the Amazon Prime Air delivery system will get packages to customers in 30 minutes or less using small aerial vehicles (a.k.a., unmanned aircraft systems,or “UAS”). We believe customers will love it, and we are committed to making Prime Air available worldwide as soon as we are permitted to do so.

To date, much of our Prime Air research and development efforts, including flight testing operations, have been conducted inside our laboratory and indoor testing facilities in Washington State. However, we must move beyond indoor testing if we are to realize the consumer benefits of Amazon Prime Air. In the absence of timely approval by the FAA to conduct outdoor testing, we have begun utilizing outdoor testing facilities outside the United States. These non-U.S. facilities enable us to quickly build and modify our Prime Air vehicles as we construct new designs and make improvements. It is our continued desire to also pursue fast-paced innovation in the United States, which would include the creation of high quality jobs and significant investment in the local community. We believe this is what Congress intended when enacting Section 333, and it is why we continue to make every effort to seek this exemption.

To ensure that our outdoor flight testing operations are as safe as possible, we have proposed to test on private property in a rural area of Washington State, away from people or crowds.We also have proposed t o do so under the supervision of trained pilots,at low altitudes, below 400 feet above ground level (“AGL”), within visual line of sight, employing “geofencing” technology that will keep the vehicle confined to the test area, and abiding by the detailed safety measures outlined in our petition.These detailed safety measures are much stronger than those currently required for hobbyists and manufacturers of model aircraft, who already do every day what Amazon is proposing.

Given the very conservative nature of Amazon’s request, especially in contrast to the nature of other petitions for commercial small UAS operations that already have been granted,as well as the way that thousands of hobbyists are permitted to operate small UAS today, we are very concerned that our needs for testing operations have not yet been accommodated.

At the FAA’s suggestion,and again in-line with our desire to pursue fast-paced innovation in the United States,we also have been exploring another regulatory path to accommodate our research and development needs, an Experimental Certification under 14 C.F.R.§21.191. However, this alternative entails a lengthy process that was designed for manned aircraft and bears little practical application to small UAS. This process requires certification for each individual vehicle, which is burdensome considering how fast we are designing new Prime Air vehicles.

Our first Experimental Certification application has been delayed multiple times as we try to work with the FAA to simplify the process. Disconcertingly,there is no guarantee that this alternative process will provide us the flexibility we need or at the pace we need it.Therefore, we are maintaining our Section 333 petition, and hope that we have not lost time pursuing this alternative.

I have provided responses to your letter’s question about the Experimental Certification alternative; however, I am concerned your question implies that alternatives must be pursued and demonstrated ineffective before our Section 333 petition will be fully considered: Given that the proposed operations can be conducted in accordance with existing regulations of §21.191, please explain the particular circumstances regarding why an exemption would be an appropriate vehicle to permit those operations.” It seems far from clear that our proposed operations can be conducted successfully under Section 21.191 at this time.

There is nothing in our reading of Section 333 that requires exhaustion of other regulatory provisions before the FAA grants petitions for exemption. Moreover, the FAA has concluded that an airworthiness certificate, experimental or otherwise, is not required to operate a small UAS under Section 333, which Congress created to get small UAS safely flying as soon as possible in the United States.Requiring exhaustion of alternatives before granting our Section 333 petition would impede that goal.

Of equal concern is your letter’s request for us to further explain why granting [Amazon’s] request would be in the public interest.” I have responded to this question in detail below,but I fear the FAA maybe questioning the fundamental benefits of keeping UAS technology innovation in the United States. Simply put, PrimeAir has great potential to enhance the services we already provide to millions of our customers by providing rapid parcel delivery that will also increase the overall safety and efficiency of the transportation system.We want approval to conduct outdoor testing operations with our small UAS in the United States to help realize this goal.

Here are our specific answers to your letter’s three questions:

1. Section 333 of the 2012 FAA Modernization and Reform Act directs the Secretary of Transportation to determine if certain unmanned aircraft systems may operate safely in the national airspace system before completion of rule making required by section 332 of the Act,and furthermore, determine whether a certificate of waiver,certificate of authorization,or airworthiness certification under section 44704 of title 49,United States Code, is required for the operation of these unmanned aircraft systems. You are seeking an exemption for the purposes of experimentation, research and development,and conducting rapid prototyping of UAS. The aircraft to be operated for the purposes described in your petition may be issued special airworthiness certificates in the experimental category in accordance with the pertinent parts of 14 CFR § 21.191. Given that the proposed operations can be conducted in accordance with existing regulations of § 21.191, please explain the particular circumstances regarding why an exemption would be an appropriate vehicle to permit those operations.

Section 333 is the appropriate mechanism to facilitate Amazon’s innovation for PrimeAir. The FAA has determined that the operation of small UAS for other than hobby or recreational purposes is commercial in nature.The agency has also concluded that small UAS do not require an airworthiness certificate pursuant to Section 333.Consistent with the FAA’s own legal position, Amazon’s development operations fall squarely within the scope of those that Congress intended to be covered by Section 333, and can be addressed by Section 333 to provide greater flexibility in R&D than the traditional Experimental Certification process.While efforts have been made by the FAA to informally adapt the Experimental Certification process, which was designed for the development of manned aircraft – be it a Boeing 747 or a Piper Cub – it remains unnecessarily onerous and ill-suited for the small UAS operations that Amazon seeks to conduct under this exemption. Despite the dedicated and well intentioned efforts of many FAA personnel, Amazon’s experience to-date with the Experimental Certification process makes clear that the agency’s requirements and guidance must be updated or allow for deviations to be workable. Under this process, requiring the small UAS used in Amazon’s development to obtain an airworthiness certificate undermines the intent of Section 333 as a mechanism to get safe operations flying quickly.Our strict safety measures will apply to all operations under the requested exemption.This will provide for a level of safety exceeding that of the film production operations already permitted by Section 333 exemptions, given our vehicles will be operated in a secure, privately-owned location, away from populated areas. Additionally, there is nothing in our reading of Section 333 that requires exhaustion of other regulatory provisions before the FAA grants petitions for exemption. Requiring exhaustion of other options before granting our Section 333 petition would impede the goal we share with Congress of getting small UAS flying commercially safely and soon in the United States.

2. To assist with the assessment of how your petition for exemption is in the public interest,please explain more fully the reasons why granting your request would be in the public interest; that is, how it would benefit the public as a whole. What data or analysis supports Amazon’s position that aerial delivery is in the interest of the American public? Other examples of benefit to the public may include reductions in injuries or fatalities related to current hand delivery practices or reductions in environmental footprints.

The outdoor testing operations we seek in our petition for exemption is a necessary step towards realizing the consumer benefits of PrimeAir,as well as a step in unlocking the enormous potential of small UAS technology. Aerial delivery is poised make goods available to consumers in a manner that is more environmentally-friendly than current surface delivery methods, while improving the overall safety of the transportation system.It is also in the public interest for Amazon to keep its small UAS R&D operations in the United States, and help America establish itself as the leader in development of UAS technology. Our continuing innovation through outdoor testing in the United States and, more generally, the competitiveness of the American small UAS industry, can no longer afford to wait. Amazon is increasingly concerned that, unless substantial progress is quickly made in opening up the skies in the United States, the nation is at risk of losing its position as the center of innovation for the UAS technological revolution, along with the key jobs and economic benefits that come as a result.

We are poised to significantly expand our distinguished team of engineers, scientists,and aeronautical professionals at Amazon’s next-generation R&D lab in Washington State. Amazon Prime Air currently has dozens of United States job openings for highly-skilled professionals including hardware engineers and research scientists.


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