Amazon’s Drones Exiled to Canada

Amazon’s Drones Exiled to Canada



Jeff Bezos is known for refusing to suffer fools. His reported put-downs include: “Why are you wasting my life?,” “Are you lazy or just incompetent?” and “I’m sorry, did I take my stupid pills today?” Imagine someone as impatient as the Amazon CEO being forced to move at the speed of bureaucrats.

This explains Amazon’s decision to take on the Obama administration’s Federal Aviation Authority. The FAA is years late in approving commercial use of drones and has violated numerous congressional deadlines. Mr. Bezos says regulatory inertia—not massive R&D—is blocking Amazon’s futuristic plan to have low-flying vehicles deliver within 30 minutes the 85% of its packages weighing less than five pounds.

When Mr. Bezos went on “60 Minutes” in 2013 to announce Amazon Prime Air, many thought he was joking. It’s now clear his appearance was just the first high-profile effort to pressure Washington to allow this next new thing.

Last month Amazon poked the FAA again. The agency had added insult to injury by granting Amazon a useless certificate to test a model of drone that R&D had made obsolete. The company’s head of global public policy, Paul Misener, told the Senate aviation subcommittee on March 24 that in the six months it took the FAA to approve the testing, “We’ve moved on to more advanced designs that we already are testing abroad.”

The next week, the Guardian published an article by reporter Ed Pilkington, who was granted access to Amazon’s secret testing facility at a location 2,000 feet across the border in Canada.

“The largest Internet retailer in the world is keeping the location of its new test site closely guarded,” the Guardian reported. “What can be revealed is that the company’s formidable team of roboticists, software engineers, aeronautics experts and pioneers in remote sensing—including a former NASA astronaut and the designer of the wingtip of the Boeing787—are now operating in British Columbia.”

The Guardian said Amazon is taking advantage of the “permissive culture on the Canadian side of the border,” while taking the company’s “quarrel with the federal government to a new level.”

Amazon is trying to shame U.S. regulators into action by publicizing what the Guardian calls “Amazon’s Canadian airstrip-in-exile.”

Last year, Mr. Bezos told a business conference, “Technology is not going to be the long pole. The long pole is going to be regulatory.” He added, “I think it is sad but possible that the U.S. could be late” to the benefits of drones, which are allowed to fly more freely in Britain, Australia, Germany and Israel as well as Canada.

The FAA treats drones the way the government once treated the Internet when it banned commercial use. This arbitrary line was why academics and scientists were first to gain access to the Web. The Internet became the force we know it today only when it was freed for business use in the 1990s.

We now have the worst of all worlds: Businesses like Amazon are not permitted to use or test drones, but hobbyists can buy drones for a few hundred dollars and fly them without safety guidelines that everyone agrees are needed. Rules that work well outside the U.S. limit drone flights to under about 500 feet and require a safe distance from airports.

The FAA in March stretched the definition of “commercial” to catch many hobbyists. The Motherboard website reported that the agency had sent a warning letter to Jayson Hanes,a Tampa-based drone enthusiast, alleging he had violated the law. The problem, according to the FAA letter, was that he had posted video from his drone to YouTube. This transformed his hobby into unlawful commercial activity simply because YouTube has advertisements. Mr. Hanes says he has never received any payment from YouTube, and he estimates revenue earned on the video to be less than a dollar.

This approach effectively criminalizes tens of thousands of videos and photos shot by drone hobbyists and posted online to YouTube or another advertising-based service, such as Facebook or Twitter.

The FAA recently minimized its failure to issue commercial drone rules by saying that “proposed requirements rely on market forces for a market that does not yet exist.” In fact, the drones have become a large industry thanks to entrepreneurs engaging in regulatory civil disobedience by ignoring government prohibitions. Farms, construction sites, movie studios and newsrooms routinely use drones. This black market is estimated to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

There are thousands of commercial drone operators in the U.S. forced to work in the shadows. Mr. Bezos is trying to embarrass regulators by pointing out that other countries are flying ahead of the U.S. At least so far, these regulators have shown themselves to be beyond shame.