Amazon.com continues to push the U.S. Government to adopt regulations that will allow for the operation of automated drones beyond the line of sight, opening the doors for the possibility of its Amazon Prime Air package delivery service.
The thorny issue around drone flights — from privacy to safety to government regulations— was on full display Wednesday morning at a hearing in front of the United States House of Representatives.
Amazon vice president of global public policy Paul Misener was one of five to testify, telling the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform that it was imperative that the U.S. adopt regulations to make automated drone flight a reality.
“We don’t disagree that it is a more difficult use case to fly drones beyond visual line of sight. It is. It requires a higher degree of automation in vehicles, and we are working on that,” said Misener. “That kind of technology is being developed. Our respectful disagreement with the FAA is that we believe that that kind of operation can be considered right now on the same risk-based approach.”
Misener said that Amazon is working on its automated drone technology, and while the vehicles are not ready to be commercially flown at this moment, he said the regulations need to be developed now. He said other countries are already developing regulations to make drone use possible beyond line of sight.
In other words, the technology is coming, so the FAA better get ready for it.
In May, the FAA changed course on its previous state policy, saying that it would begin studying the possibility of drone flights that can be operated beyond the pilot’s line of sight. A few months prior, the FAA released proposed rules that would have required the pilot to be in visual contact with the drone at all times, a rule that would have basically torpedoed plans for Amazon Prime Air.
Amazon wants to use drones to deliver packages up to five pounds, transporting the goods up to 10 miles away from distribution centers. The automated drones would fly between 200 feet and 500 feet, employing a “sense and avoid” technology in order to minimize collisions with other objects on the ground or in the sky. Amazon also wants to have one pilot operate multiple drones at a time.
In Wednesday’s testimony, Misener said that he believes that “we’ve turned that corner with the FAA” on the issue of drone use beyond line of sight. He also said that they’d like to get Amazon Prime Air off the ground as soon as regulations allow for it.
“We are working on the technology as quickly as we can,” said Misener. “Amazon doesn’t sound like an aviation company, but we have certainly staffed up with aviation experts… We are taking this very seriously. The safety aspect of it is front and center. The team is trying to develop this technology as quickly as possible.”
Misener added that the aviation aspect of drone delivery is just one small piece of the puzzle for Amazon, which also needs to make sure its distribution facilities are equipped to handle drone deliveries. “To get that 30-minute promise down, we have to get that item somewhere in a very large building ready to get to the drone, and that presents another set of engineering challenges,” he said.
Misener said the Amazon Prime Air technology will be ready by the time any regulations are approved. “We are confident we will have it in place,” he said.
The FAA hopes to have its new proposed drone rules ready for review prior to June 2016. Until then, Congressman John Mica (R-FL) noted that the country is operating on a “helter skelter basis” with more than 50 FAA waivers and exemptions each week as it relates to drone usage.
“We will have a patchwork of exemptions and waivers until we get to the final rule, if you keep it up at that rate … and that’s not totally acceptable,” Mica said.
One of the funniest moment’s in today’s hearing came when Congressman Eiljah Cummings (D-Maryland) seemed amazed by the possibility of package deliveries by drones, saying he just “wanted to picture how it works.” He wondered how a company in Washington state could deliver a package to a customer in Iowa.
Misener explained that Amazon has a vast network of fulfillment centers across the U.S., noting that they’d like to enable that network to deliver packages more quickly than ground transportation.
“We looked into all different kinds of functionalities of how to get things to customers on a 30-minute or less basis, and what really works is drones,” said Misener.
“So, it just pops up on a drone right in front of your door?” Cummings asked.
“Yep. Yes, sir,” responded Misener.
Cummings responded with skeptical amazement and laughed: “Ok.”
The full hearing is available here, and the exchange between Cummings and Misener occurs about midway through the hearing at minute mark -1:44:54:
And here are the prepared remarks from Misener: