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Amazon wins FAA approval to test drone delivery outdoors

20 March 2015

Amazon has won approval from US federal regulators to test a delivery drone outdoors, as the e-commerce company steps towards its goal of sending packages to customers by air, even as concerns mounted about their safety.

The Federal Aviation Administration said yesterday that it issued an experimental airworthiness certificate to an Amazon business unit and its prototype drone, allowing test flights over private, rural land in Washington state.

The FAA further granted Amazon an exemption from other flight restrictions so the experimental drone could conduct those flights.

The approval comes as a major step forward for Seattle-based Amazon, the largest e-commerce company in the US, enabling it to move ahead with plans to deliver packages using small, self-piloted aircraft.

There are limitations though as the experimental certificate applies to a particular drone and Amazon would need to obtain new certification if it modified the aircraft or flew a different version, making it difficult to adapt the model quickly in the field.

According to the FAA, Amazon would have to limit the flights to under 400 feet (120 meters) and keep the drone in sight.

Amazon also would need to provide monthly data reports to the FAA, including the number of flights they took, pilot duty time per flight and any issues that might come up during their testing.

Amazon chief Jeff Bezos had announced in 2013 that the company had been testing drones for a possible future "Amazon Prime Air" service that would fly ordered items directly to customers' homes in less than half an hour.

The company, however, had issues requesting a Grant of Exemption permit, which was earlier rejected by the FAA. According to an Amazon executive who spoke to The Wall Street Journal the company would need to consider testing internationally if they did not receive permission to test outdoors in the US.

The FAA last month came out with rules that would lead to US guidelines for drones, addressing growing interest from both individual and corporations in using unmanned aerial vehicles. The draft rules would be subject to public comment and revision before becoming final, which was expected to take at least a year.

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