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Amazon's drone delivery grounded by the FAA

The FAA has taken a hard line on commercial drones - defining them as 'model aircraft' and banning their use in a number of industries

James Vincent
Wednesday 25 June 2014 15:44 BST
Amazon's ‘octocopter' were due to be making deliveries by 2015
Amazon's ‘octocopter' were due to be making deliveries by 2015

Amazon’s ambitious plans to deliver packages by drone have been grounded for the near future as the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) makes it clear that they won’t allow “model aircraft” to be used for “delivering packages to people for a fee."

This is the wording used by the FAA in a newly-released 17-page document that clarifies the attitude towards the growing tide of small drones.

Their classification of these remote-controlled bots as “model aircraft” makes it clear that although public perception of this technology has changed with the advent of powerful military and surveillance drones, the FAA sees more similarities than differences with the “hobby” aircraft that have been used by enthusiasts for decades.

The FAA’s reaction won’t come as much of a surprise to those in the tech scene who were unconvinced about the plausibility of Amazon’s ‘Prime Air’. Scepticism was apparent from the off - especially as Jeff Bezos announced the scheme in December last year, giving the online retailer a convenient PR boost ahead of the Christmas shopping period.

However, Amazon has always acknowledged that there would be legislative difficulties, noting at the time of the launch that “putting Prime Air into commercial use will take some number of years as we advance the technology and wait for the necessary FAA rules and regulations.”

The FAA have maintained since 2007 that is illegal to operate drones commercially in the US, with the agency saying they will revisit the issue with potential new rules slated for the end of 2015. At the moment the agency is taking a hard line against the technology in all commercial applications - not just Amazon’s.

As well as prohibiting the delivery of packages for a fee the FAA has banned the use of model aircraft for any number of commercial possibilities – from photographing property to surveying farmland and “demonstrating aerobatics”.

A recent investigation from The Washington Post suggests that the FAA is right to be cautious: in the past two years there were 15 cases of drones flying "dangerously close" to airports or passenger aircraft, in addition to 47 military drone crashes since 2001 and 23 civilian crashes since 2009.

In the UK would-be drone operators are facing similar legislative problems hurdles, with the Civil Aviation Authority's (CAA) current regulations banning all drones heavier than 20kg from flying in civilian airspace.

Drones lighter than this can be flown in normal airspace as long as the operator doesn't plan to use data or images from the flight - and only if the drone itself remains within line of sight for the operator and at least 150 metres away from crowds.

However, in both the US and UK anecdotal evidence (including hours of flight video uploaded to YouTube) suggests that these regulations are being breached on a regular basis.

Earlier this month footage emerged of a group of hockey fans in the US who were celebrating a cup win downing a private drone that they believed was being operated by the LAPD.

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