Updated below with Amazon comment.
The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration on Sunday released its proposed rules for commercial unmanned aircraft systems — better known as drones — including limits that, if approved, could prevent Amazon from pursuing the full extent of its vision for drone-based package delivery in the country.
A proposed requirement for the operator to maintain visual contact with the drone appears to be the biggest stumbling block, which had been expected. The company has proposed using drones to deliver packages in a radius of up to 10 miles, well beyond the line of sight of the person flying the drone.
“The proposed rule would require an operator to maintain visual line of sight of a small UAS,” says the FAA in a summary of the plan. “The rule would allow, but not require, an operator to work with a visual observer who would maintain constant visual contact with the aircraft. The operator would still need to be able to see the UAS with unaided vision (except for glasses). The FAA is asking for comments on whether the rules should permit operations beyond line of sight, and if so, what the appropriate limits should be.”
That last part is a glimmer of hope for Amazon, which has made it clear that it would focus its attention internationally if the FAA rules aren’t compatible with its plans in the U.S. After publication of the proposed rules in the Federal Register, the public will have 60 days to comment on the proposed rules.
Update, 10:49 a.m.: Amazon released this statement from Paul Misener, its vice president of global public policy.
“The FAA’s proposed rules for small UAS could take one or two years to be adopted and, based on the proposal, even then those rules wouldn’t allow Prime Air to operate in the United States. The FAA needs to begin and expeditiously complete the formal process to address the needs of our business, and ultimately our customers. We are committed to realizing our vision for Prime Air and are prepared to deploy where we have the regulatory support we need.”
The company had previously said it would be ready to launch “Amazon Prime Air” as early as this year, depending on regulatory approval. Now, the official Prime Air page says instead, “Putting Prime Air into service will take some time, but we will deploy when we have the regulatory support needed to realize our vision.”
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos unveiled the drone delivery plan in 2013 on 60 Minutes, part of a broader effort by the company to increase delivery speeds for customers. “I know this looks like science fiction,” Bezos said at the time. “It’s not.”
Here’s a PDF from the FAA detailing the proposed rules.