FAA deems Amazon delivery drones 'airworthy,' with heavy regulations

A new certificate means the FAA will allow Amazon to test drones, but a drone delivery program still appears to be a work in progress.

The Federal Aviation Administration announced yesterday that it issued an "experimental airworthiness certificate" to Amazon, allowing it to legally use drones for "research and development and crew training."

Amazon has been planning to eventually launch a drone delivery program for years, which company CEO Jeff Bezos first announced during an interview with 60 Minutes last January, even though the FAA had yet to issue rules on the use of drones for commercial purposes.

The certification is a good sign for Amazon's long-term drone plans, but it comes with a lot of stipulations, suggesting that it may still be a long time before drones replace delivery trucks. From the FAA's announcement:

"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."

The certificate also requires Amazon to provide the FAA with monthly data showing "number of flights conducted, pilot duty time per flight, unusual hardware or software malfunctions, any deviations from air traffic controllers' instructions, and any unintended loss of communication links."

So Amazon's R&D will be limited to whatever the drone can do while within the eyesight of the pilot controlling it, and that the only people who can conduct those tests within eyesight must be certified to fly a small aircraft. And the FAA will be checking in every month to make sure Amazon doesn't break any of these rules.

In a Forbes interview, Brendan Schulman, a lawyer at Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel, said the certificate essentially means "the FAA is treating drones the same as a Boeing 747 that's operating for development or testing purposes."

"This approach is some progress for Amazon specifically, but it's still limiting for innovating companies in general," he added.

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