Bart Jansen, USA TODAY
Amazon won federal approval again to fly drones in research for potential deliveries after its initial approval in March took so long that its remote-controlled aircraft became obsolete.
The FAA announced Thursday that Amazon was one of 30 exemptions the agency granted a day earlier for commercial drones, bringing the total to 128.
The approvals are exemptions to a general prohibition on commercial drones until the FAA develops comprehensive drone regulations. Other companies approved planned to make movies or conduct aerial surveys or monitor agriculture.
“We’re pleased the FAA has granted our petition for this stage of R&D experimentation, and we look forward to working with the agency for permission to deliver Prime Air service to customers in the United States safely and soon,” said Paul Misener, Amazon vice president for global public policy.
To conduct research for a proposed drone-delivery program, Amazon will be able to fly up to 400 feet high at up to 100 miles an hour over private property and within sight of the remote-control pilot or a designated observer. The flights are supposed to remain at least 500 feet away from other people.
If the aircraft loses the connection to its pilot or GPS signal, it must return to a predetermined location.
The company said in its application that research is for Amazon Prime Air, a proposed 30-minute delivery service. The company has said it will abide by much stronger safety measures than required for hobbyists.
The research will develop drones flying more than 50 mph and carrying 5-pound payloads. Researchers include roboticists, aeronautical engineers and remote-sensing experts.
The drone industry strongly supports the research as crucial to keeping research jobs and technical expertise from migrating overseas, where rules are looser. But opposition remains.
The Air Line Pilots Association, a union representing 50,000 commercial pilots, said because flights are proposed near densely populated areas, each flight should be coordinated with air-traffic controllers. The FAA said the agency will distribute warnings to pilots in the area when drone flights are planned.
The National Agricultural Aviation Association, which represents 1,800 crop dusters, said drone pilots should be required to hold commercial pilot certificates so they’re familiar with how other pilots fly. The FAA said drone pilots holding less strict certificates wouldn’t present a hazard to other aircraft or people on the ground.
The FAA approved Amazon delivery-drone research last month, but a company executive told a Senate panel that the approval took so long from its July application that the specific aircraft had become obsolete.
Congress ordered the FAA in 2012 to integrate drones into the same airspace as passenger planes by September, but that deadline is sure to be missed. Many crucial steps will remain unfulfilled by then.
The special exemptions to fly commercial drones are being granted as the FAA collects and analyzes comments on proposed regulations released in February governing drones weighing up to 55 pounds. Experts say it could take 18 months to two years to complete those regulations.