Amazon moves drone research overseas

Amazon.com told U.S. regulators that it has begun testing deliveries by unmanned aircraft, or drones, in other countries and will divert more research abroad if the government doesn’t let it conduct such tests locally.

In a Dec. 7 letter to the Federal Aviation Administration, Amazon, the largest Internet retailer, urged the agency to quickly grant the Seattle-based company permission to test drones outside of laboratories in Washington state. The company proposes to fly the drones on private property in a rural area, supervised by trained pilots, according to the letter, which was a response to questions from the FAA.

Amazon, which unveiled plans to use drones last year, said it wants them to deliver light packages to customers in 30 minutes or less. In July, Amazon sought permission to test the drones outdoors, based on an FAA request for comments on possible exemptions to its ban on commercial drone operations. The latest letter expressed concern that the FAA may be impeding technology innovation in the U.S.

“In the absence of timely approval by the FAA to conduct outdoor testing, we have begun utilizing outdoor testing facilities outside the United States,” Paul Misener, Amazon’s vice president of global policy, wrote in the letter. “It is our continued desire to also pursue fast-paced innovation in the United States, which would include the creation of high-quality jobs and significant investment in the local community.”

In September, the FAA granted permission for seven Hollywood production companies to use drones for filming through the same program under which Amazon is requesting a waiver. Those are the only commercial drone users permitted in the continental U.S. Two oil companies were also previously granted permits to use drones in Arctic regions of Alaska.

The FAA said it’s reviewing Amazon’s letter.

“The agency has designated an inspector to work closely with representatives from Amazon on its request for an experimental certificate to conduct research and development of unmanned aircraft,” the agency said in an e-mail. “The FAA is currently waiting for additional information from the company to complete the application. Since 2005, the FAA has issued over 200 initial and recurrent experimental research and development certificates to unmanned aircraft operations.”

Amazon’s proposed deliveries won’t be permitted initially in the U.S., according to a Nov. 7, 2013, FAA document outlining the types of commercial drone flights it expects to allow. The agency said it wouldn’t permit commercial drone flights without a pilot at the controls, and Amazon has said it wants to have its package-delivery drone fly automatically.