Amazon has reached an agreement with the U.K. Civil Aviation Authority to expand its overseas drone delivery tests, the two sides announced late Monday.
The U.K. Civil Aviation Authority has given Amazon permission to explore three key innovations: Beyond-line-of-sight operations in rural and suburban areas; sensor performance tests to ensure that drones can identify and avoid obstacles; and flights of multiple highly-automated drones operated by individual.
The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration has not yet allowed Amazon to conduct similar drone tests.
While many thought Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos was joking when three years ago he first referenced drones as a key delivery mode, drones are emerging as a new wave of transportation that could help revolutionize retail. Precedent has been set: The railroads, the development of a nationwide highway transportation system and air freight each in turn helped drive retail innovations that wouldn't have been possible without them.
Now several entities are seriously considering the use of drones. Just last week, convenience retailer 7-Eleven and drone operator Flirtey announced they’d made the first FAA-approved drone delivery to a U.S. address earlier this month in Reno, NV. And while FedEx CEO Frederick Smith in the past has called Amazon’s drone delivery “mythology,” the shipper—like its rivals UPS and DHL—has nevertheless been exploring the idea as well.
Amazon has been frustrated by delays in the development of drone rules by the FAA, and last year Amazon’s VP for Global Public Policy Paul Misener told a Senate panel that Europe may get drone delivery well ahead of the U.S. because the company has been able to test its drones in the U.K. and elsewhere.
Now things to seem to be accelerating. “The U.K. is a leader in enabling drone innovation—we’ve been investing in Prime Air research and development here for quite some time,” Misener said in a statement. “This announcement strengthens our partnership with the U.K. and brings Amazon closer to our goal of using drones to safely deliver parcels in 30 minutes to customers in the U.K. and elsewhere around the world.”
The FAA last month completed its first rules governing commercial drone usage, limiting aircraft under 55 pounds to flying at levels under 400 feet, and at least five miles away from any airport. Drones can fly higher if within 400 feet of a taller building or structure. Most also are limited to flying during daylight hours. When piloting a drone, the operator must have the drone within sight at all times, and be accompanied by an observer.
The 624-page FAA rulebook doesn't cover e-commerce drones designed for delivery purposes, which likely will have to wait for later rulemaking. Amazon alone has spent more than $600,000 over the last three years lobbying to use drones for delivery, according to Center for Responsive Politics data.