Is Amazon Really Allowed to Start Using Drones?

Source: Amazon

What was once little more than a crazy idea is actually about to take flight. In a testing phase, anyway.

The Federal Aviation Administration has given eCommerce and Internet retail behemoth Amazon the official nod to go ahead with testing of its proposed drone delivery program, which could see the skies filled with autonomous flying robots, delivering customer orders in a fast and efficient way — if things end up panning out. This is a big win for Amazon, as it was unclear just how the FAA would try and regulate the company’s proposal, but it looks as though regulators are at least willing to let Amazon give it a shot.

“The Federal Aviation Administration today issued an experimental airworthiness certificate to an Amazon Logistics, Inc. unmanned aircraft (UAS) design that the company will use for research and development and crew training,” an FAA press release reads from March 19, before stipulating the conditions for Amazon’s experiments. “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 FAA lays out for starters, followed by “…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.”

On top of all that, Amazon will be required to hand over monthly reports detailing the amount of flight time that was amassed, malfunctions, and any deviations from instructions posed by air-traffic controllers.

What’s interesting about the FAA’s stipulations is that the regulatory body appears to be taking this fairly seriously. By requiring that all drone operators actually be licensed pilots, and putting them all under the authority of air-traffic controllers, it’s a sure bet that these drones won’t be zipping around neighborhoods with reckless abandon, which is a good thing.

The FAA’s go-ahead comes several months after Amazon sent a letter to the agency, claiming that if they didn’t get the green light from American lawmakers, the company would find somewhere else to work out the new system. “Amazon urges the FAA to swiftly approve our Section 333 petition, submitted nearly five months ago. Without the ability to test outdoors in the Unites States soon, we will have no choice but to divert even more of our UAS research and development resources abroad,” wrote Amazon VP of Global Public Policy Paul Misener, in a letter dated December 7, 2014.

With that in mind, Amazon appears to be willing to put this program on track for implementation with or without approval from American lawmakers. Perhaps that’s why the government actually decided to let Amazon go ahead, knowing that with some stringent requirements in place, the company would be more or less forced to adapt and mold the program to be as safe as possible. It’s difficult to say, but it’s hard to deny that it’s exciting to at least see something like this get an honest try from a company with the resources and logistics to pull it off.

With that said, there is still a big question lingering over Amazon’s delivery drone program: is this even a good idea?

Obviously, there is plenty to be concerned about as society enters a new age with autonomous cars and commercial drones — including safety, privacy, and all kinds of other things. But from a business standpoint, having a fleet of delivery drones, capable of dropping deliveries off faster and cheaper than ever before would automatically put Amazon miles ahead of any other retailer.

For example, why would you drive to Target to pick up paper towels, when a drone can just bring them to you? Drones also cost significantly less than a delivery truck, driver, insurance, gasoline, etc. Some of those costs will remain, but the most expensive input will probably be licensed pilots to guide drones around cities.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves — Amazon merely has permission to test the program, not to commence with it full-throttle. Depending on how those tests go, we could witness a radical change in the way business is conducted, and even how infrastructure and cities are planned.

Make no mistake, there are huge implications.

Follow Sam on Twitter @Sliceofginger

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