Amazon prepares for UK drone tests, but commercial launch would need law change

Amazon is recruiting people to assist with tests of its “Amazon Prime Air” drones in the U.K., job ads posted in the last couple months show. However, the company faces significant restrictions on the tests it can carry out in the country, and aviation rules would require revamping for any commercial drone rollout.

The ads, flagged by TechCrunch, include two for flight operations engineers who will need to act as safety observers using test flights, “both outdoor and indoor,” to help plan the evolution of flight tests and develop safety policies. Amazon is also looking for a research scientist, a project manager and a site leader. The jobs are based in Cambridge.

The German postal giant [company]DHL[/company] is already testing delivery by drone, most recently launching a pilot in which “parcelcopters” deliver packages to the North Sea island of Juist. This process is entirely automated, albeit monitored in case something goes wrong – manual control can be regained in such a case. Drones are, ahem, really taking off in Canada too.

In the U.S., [company]Amazon[/company] is trying to get FAA permission to begin outdoor tests. At the moment, the FAA bans commercial use of drones because they’re dangerous — an annoyance to both Amazon and [company]Google[/company], which also wants to get into drone usage for deliveries (and is conducting tests in Australia.)

In the U.K., Amazon may be preparing tests but Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) rules currently ban outdoor tests of unmanned vehicles where the operator doesn’t have line-of-sight with the drone. The rules state:

The person in charge of a small unmanned aircraft must maintain direct, unaided visual contact with the aircraft sufficient to monitor its flight path in relation to other aircraft, persons, vehicles, vessels and structures for the purpose of avoiding collisions.

A spokesman for the CAA confirmed that Amazon’s tests would be fine “if they did it in a completely closed environment with no other airspace users, probably with specific permission.” Amazon could also use certain facilities in Wales that specialize in drone testing and have clearance for limited long-range trials. Right now, though, commercial drone deliveries are a no-go.

A crucial step that might change that situation would be the development of systems for sensing and avoiding other airspace users, ranging from paragliders to military jets on high-speed training exercises. “The introduction of sense-and-avoid may lead to rule changes, because at the moment it’s illegal just to launch a drone over significant distances without being in the line of sight,” the CAA spokesman said.

There are of course companies working on this problem, but the reality of Amazon Prime Air won’t materialize until it’s been solved.

Amazon is also hiring people in Cambridge to aid its speech recognition efforts, the TechCrunch report noted. This follows from its purchase two years back of speech recognition outfit Evi, and its recent unveiling of the Amazon Echo in-home personal assistant/shopper.