Amazon.com Inc. said the regulatory approval it received last week to test-fly its delivery drones in the U.S. was already irrelevant when it arrived: Regulators approved an aircraft Amazon is no longer testing.
While the Federal Aviation Administration was considering its applications for testing, Amazon had already developed new models so “that the [drone] approved last week by the FAA has become obsolete. We don’t test it anymore,” Paul Misener, Amazon’s vice president for global public policy, testified at a congressional hearing on Tuesday. “We’ve moved on to more advanced designs that we already are testing abroad.”
Amazon, which wants to use unmanned aircraft to quickly deliver small packages, applied for two types of regulatory approvals to test its devices outdoors. On Thursday, the FAA granted Amazon the more restrictive permission, an “experimental airworthiness certificate.” The decision was widely seen as a victory, albeit a small one, for Amazon.
The FAA approval was the same sort it gives to plane makers like Boeing Co. to test new manned aircraft, and it requires additional approvals for each change to the aircraft. Amazon says such a policy is too restrictive, given how quickly it is developing drone prototypes. The case underscores a consistent point of tension between regulators and drone operators: how to apply decades-old rules designed for manned aircraft to drones.
Amazon said it has applied for another certificate for a newer drone, but that it prefers to receive a commercial-drone exemption like the ones granted to roughly 50 operators in the U.S., which would give it more flexibility.
The FAA said that it approved the experimental certificate for which Amazon applied and that it is still considering Amazon’s application for a commercial-drone exemption. The FAA said Amazon’s application for a second certificate would likely require an entirely new vetting process because it is for a significantly different aircraft design.
Meantime, Amazon has been test-flying its delivery drones in the U.K. and other countries.
The FAA effectively bans commercial-drone flights in the U.S. until it completes proposed rules for the devices, expected late next year. Those rules would give blanket approval for commercial-drone flights as long as operators passed a written exam and followed certain operational limits, including prohibitions on flights over bystanders and beyond the sight of the operator.
Mr. Misener testified that the FAA should expedite its plans to allow autonomous drone flights beyond the sight of humans overseeing the operations—a scenario drone advocates say is necessary to unlock the devices’ full potential, including large-scale deliveries. Regulators “need to be looking further down the road,” Mr. Misener said. “I can assure you, [such technology] is coming quickly.”
Peggy Gilligan, the FAA’s associate administrator for aviation safety, testified that the FAA wants to authorize autonomous drone flights, but that it can’t consider such operations until certain technologies—like software and sensors that enable drones to avoid obstacles—are proven and standardized, a process that could take years. “It is a far more complex area and it is one where we don’t have the technology standards established,” she said.
In the meantime, Ms. Gilligan said the FAA is aiming to remove barriers to the safest commercial drone operations. Indeed, on Tuesday, the agency streamlined the regulatory process for approved commercial-drone operators. Under previous rules, such operators had to obtain FAA approval for each flight. The new rules allow those operators to fly their drones as much as they wish as long as they comply with certain operational limits, such as keeping flights away from airports and below 200 feet.
Write to Jack Nicas at [email protected]