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Amazon is testing its delivery drone system in Britain. (Amazon Photo)

Regulators have to work out lots of issues before they let drones start delivering packages routinely, but in Britain at least, there’s a timetable.

“We’ve got a soft target of 2020,” Michael Clark, deputy director at Britain’s Department for Transport, told GeekWire. And although the Federal Aviation Administration hasn’t announced its own timetable, 2020 could well be a soft target for U.S. operations as well.

Clark and other British transport officials discussed the U.K. perspective on unmanned aircraft systems last week while visiting the States for the Drone World Expo in San Jose, Calif.

Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority is playing a key role in Amazon’s plans to develop delivery drones, highlighted by the Seattle-based retailer’s flight test program near Cambridge.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos spoke warmly about the company’s relationship with British regulators last month at Seattle’s Museum of Flight. “We’re getting really good cooperation from the British equivalent of the FAA, the CAA,” he said. “It’s incredible. It’s really cool.”

For what it’s worth, the feeling is mutual: “Amazon is a pathfinder,” Clark said.

That means Amazon, like a number of other companies, is working with the CAA to pioneer technologies and practices for safe commercial drone operations. Clark and his colleagues said they couldn’t discuss the specifics of Amazon’s program, due to confidentiality requirements. But they said they’re committed to making Britain as drone-friendly as possible.

“We really want to make the most of the drone economy,” Clark said. “We’ve got a very open testing environment.”

The number of permissions granted for commercial drone operations has been rising steeply, from 760 in 2014, to 1,653 last year, to 2,113 from the start of this year through October. More than 2,000 commercial drone operators are in business.

“There’s a lot of interest in drone regulation and the drone economy,” Clark said. He likes to think that Britain’s relatively small size means  “we’re slightly more agile” when it comes to working out the requirements for drone operations.

At the same time, British authorities have to be sensitive to the reactions from the residents of a small country. Some community leaders already have voiced concerns about Amazon’s flight testing program near Cambridge.

“People walk here to find peace,” Julia Napier, secretary of Friends of the Roman Road and Fleam Dyke, told the BBC this summer. “The idea that drones can be whizzing over their heads, delivering parcels to people who cannot wait more than two days, who must have the new thing … means more noise in the countryside.”

Public outreach is a key part of Britain’s drone strategy. Last month, the CAA and Visit England launched a “400ft Britain” photo/video contest, open to drone operators who take pictures from below the 400-foot altitude limit specified in the CAA’s “Dronecode.”

“We use that as a vehicle for getting out the message about responsible drone use,” said Tim Johnson, the CAA’s head of policy.

Amazon is getting in on the outreach action as well: Last month, the company sponsored its first “Design a Drone” competition for schools in the Cambridge area. Researchers even treated schoolchildren as well as journalists to a tour of Amazon’s hush-hush drone lab in Cambridge.

In addition to making deliveries and taking pictures, Britain’s pathfinder programs are testing drones as tools for inspecting power lines, rail lines and other infrastructure, responding to emergencies and conducting search-and-rescue operations. There’s even a professional drone racing competition that’s scheduled to take place at London’s Alexandra Palace next year.

Between now and 2020, British regulators will have to address the same challenges that the FAA is facing – for example, how to ensure safe flight beyond an operator’s visual line of sight, how to assess which collision avoidance systems will be sufficient, and how to move safely toward more autonomous flight.

“We haven’t got a magic bullet on this,” Clark said. “But I think we’ve been able to keep ahead of the curve.”

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