FAA Approves Delivery Drones, As Long As Amazon Changes Everything

There's always a catch

Amazon Prime Air Drone
Amazon Prime Air Drone
Amazon Prime Air

In December 2013, Amazon announced with great fanfare a radical concept for delivery: drones, on autopilot, carrying small packages right to customer's doorsteps. While the idea was not without its critics, it looked like a tangible future for commercial drones. Yesterday, the FAA announced that they are finally willing to let Amazon test their drones within the United States, provided that Amazon doesn't test anything meaningful or innovative about the drone delivery concept at all.

Here's the specific language from the FAA's announcement of Amazon's Experimental Airworthiness Certificate:

Under the provisions of the certificate, all flight operations must be conducted at 400 feet or below during daylight hours in visual meteorological conditions. The UAS must always remain within visual line-of-sight of the pilot and observer. The pilot actually flying the aircraft must have at least a private pilot’s certificate and current medical certification.

In the video Amazon Prime Air released for the concept, there's no pilot in sight. At a warehouse, a human loads the package into a special container, where a conveyor belt takes it to a drone, which then flies up from a landing pad over the factory through a field and to a distant house. In order to accomplish drone deliveries, Amazon either needs to launch the drones from delivery trucks, or it needs the drones to fly autonomously and beyond the line-of-sight of pilots. For the latter (and likelier) scenario, neither component is allowed by the FAA. As Jason Koebler notes at Motherboard, "it'll prevent Amazon from actually ​delivering packages over any kind of appreciable distance."

If Amazon can't meaningfully test their delivery system even with an FAA experimental certificate, they might move their drone testing abroad. Amazon suggested as much last year, and Google is already testing their drone-based delivery system in Australia.