The company’s top policy executive told a Senate subcommittee that the company has already moved past the drone design that regulators approved last week.
The approval federal aviation officials gave Amazon.com last week to test a specific drone design outdoors is already outdated, the company’s top policy executive said Tuesday in testimony to a Senate subcommittee.
Paul Misener, Amazon.com’s vice president of global public policy, said the Federal Aviation Administration approved an older drone design that the company has moved past. The company needs FAA approval for outdoor testing of drones that it hopes to deploy one day to deliver small packages to customers within 30 minutes. Amazon dubs the service Prime Air.
“(W)e innovated so rapidly that the (drone) approved last week by the FAA has become obsolete,” Misener said in testimony before the Senate Subcommittee on Aviation Operations, Safety, and Security, which was webcast live. “We don’t test it anymore. We’ve moved on to more advanced designs that we already are testing abroad.”
Misener used the example to make the point that U.S. regulators are moving too slowly in the rapidly evolving commercial development of drones, which he called UAS, or unmanned aircraft systems. Amazon has said it’s testing drones in countries such as the United Kingdom, where governments have quickly created rules to allow it to conduct extensive research and development.
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“Nowhere outside of the United States have we been required to wait more than one or two months to begin testing, and permission has been granted for operating a category of UAS, giving us room to experiment and rapidly perfect designs without being required to continually obtain new approvals for specific UAS vehicles,” Misener said.
Misener was one of six witnesses who testified Tuesday before the subcommittee, which is looking into efforts by the FAA to integrate drones into the National Airspace System. The committee also heard testimony about potential privacy concerns of drone activity.
Margaret Gilligan, associate administrator for aviation safety at the FAA, defended the agency, saying safety was paramount in the “very active” airspace over the United States. And while senators pressed Gilligan about the pace at which the agency allowed drone testing, she pushed back, noting that if speedy approval led to an accident, lawmakers would be justifiably upset.
The agency is pressing for standards for the emerging technology in order to set rules by which it measures applications. Without those standards, the agency has been unwilling to allow, for example, drone flight above people.
“We think this is a risk that does need mitigating,” Gilligan said.
That said, Gilligan noted that since 2012 the agency has issued 60 exemptions to aviation rules for commercial drone testing in “low-risk, controlled” environments.
For Amazon, that’s not fast enough. Misener said the agency shouldn’t regulate drones the way it regulates jumbo jets. Amazon, he said, shouldn’t have to seek approval for each design tweak, a process that slows its development.
“It’s going to take a recognition that these are different types of aircraft,” Misener said.
Amazon is particularly vexed by rules that prevent it from operating drones beyond the line of sight of its pilots. In written testimony, Misener said the company has developed automated “sense and avoid” technology to prevent crashes, as well as onboard computing to prevent mishaps if communications is lost with the drone.
The FAA restrictions have left Amazon to conduct its U.S. testing in what Misener described as a “ large indoor R&D facility in downtown Seattle.” The company previously disclosed that it owns a large plot of land in rural Washington state where it hopes to conduct outdoor testing.
In his written testimony, Misener pointed out that Amazon has hired top technologists to design and operate its drones, including a “team of roboticists, scientists, aeronautical engineers, remote sensing experts, and a former NASA astronaut.” Though he didn’t name the astronaut, Amazon has hired Neil Woodward, a former mission specialist at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, as a technical program manager for Prime Air, according to Woodward’s LinkedIn page.
Misener also pressed the committee to push regulators to adopt similar approaches to those being developed in Europe or potentially cede drone-innovation leadership to other countries.
“(T)he permission the FAA granted to us is more restrictive than are the rules and approvals by which we conduct outdoor testing in the U.K. and elsewhere,” Misener told the committee. “Moreover, obtaining permission took far too long, and certainly much longer — over half a year — than it took in other countries.”
Senators from both parties, notably Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., and Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., took up Amazon’s case for regulatory speed. The only drone mishaps, Booker said, have come from hobbyists who have, for example, flown their aircraft onto the White House grounds.
“We need to distinguish between commercial applications and private use,” Booker said.
When Booker gave Misener an opportunity to criticize the FAA approval process even more, the Amazon executive instead said he believes the agency has “turned the corner.”
That response caught Booker off guard.
“Let the record show that you sufficiently sucked up to the FAA,” Booker joked.
Misener’s written testimony also offered a few new details about Amazon’s drone development. The drones, first revealed by Chief Executive Jeff Bezos in late 2013 in an interview on CBS’ “60 Minutes,” will fly below 500 feet and “generally above 200 feet,” except for takeoff and landing. The craft will weigh less than 55 pounds. And Misener said the company will be able to operate it from distances of 10 miles or more.
During the hearing, Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., raised privacy concerns, noting that there is little law protecting Americans regarding data collection by drone. He’s introduced the Drone Aircraft Privacy and Transparency Act to require operators to register their drone use in a public database and require police to get warrants before using drones for surveillance.
Misener didn’t address privacy matters during his comments. But in his written testimony, he said Amazon has no interest in spying on individuals.
“Prime Air is a future delivery service, not a surveillance operation,” Misener wrote.