Amazon asks FAA to test Prime Air, says drones will go over 50mph with “geo-fence” for safety

Amazon(s amzn) is asking the FAA to begin outdoor tests for its program to use drones to deliver five pound packages, stating in a letter that “seeing Amazon Prime Air will be as normal as seeing mail trucks on the road today.”
The request, which is also a diversion from Amazon’s latest legal troubles, offers a raft of new details about what Amazon has done with drones so far, and how it plans to use them in the future. The letter is posted on a government website, and discloses that:

  • Amazon has been testing drones in an indoor facility in Seattle, and is already on its 9th generation prototype with drones that travel over 50mph
  • The drones are roto-powered via a battery source and weigh up to 55 pounds
  • For safety, Amazon will use a physical button that can force a controlled landing, and will also use “geo-fencing” to keep the drone in an “electronic box” below 400 feet
  • Amazon wants to do outdoor tests in one or more of the six states (New York, Nevada, Texas, Alaska, Virginia and North Dakota) where the FAA has authorized drone testing sites

From a legal point of view, what Amazon is doing is asking the FAA to grant it an exemption against current rules that forbid the commercial use of drones within the U.S. To qualify for an exemption, companies have to use sanctioned pilots and deploy only drone models that have been approved by the FAA. In its letter, however, Amazon argues it would be “an unreasonable burden on both the FAA and Amazon if we were required to apply for a special airworthiness certificate for every sUAS design …while we are in R&D and conducting rapid prototyping.”
For now, the only company to have received such an exemption is BP, which is using drones in Alaska to monitor oil infrastructure. Meanwhile, a growing number of other industries — from news outlets to search-and-rescue to films — are waiting on the FAA to expedite the permission process (the FAA is also facing a court challenge that its rules are illegitimate to begin with).
In Amazon’s case, the company claims that 86 percent of its deliveries weigh less than five pounds, which would make them suitable for drone delivery. Given the technical and regulatory challenges, however, an Amazon drone is unlikely to arrive at your door for at least five years. Here’s a copy of Amazon’s FAA request if you want to read more:

Amazon FAA Application

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