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FAA allows Amazon to fly drones experimentally

By Bart Jansen, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON – The Federal Aviation Administration approved Amazon Logistics Inc. on Thursday to fly drones experimentally.

The approval will allow the company to conduct research, development and crew training for deliveries called Amazon Prime Air.

The company is required to fly remote-controlled aircraft lower than 400 feet during daylight hours, and the pilot must have a private pilot’s certificate. Other restrictions include keeping the aircraft within view of its pilot or a partner, called a “visual observer,” and flying at least 500 feet away from people not associated with the experiments.

While Amazon is the highest-profile company to get FAA approval to fly drones commercially, the agency has granted 48 petitions through Friday for purposes such as movie-making, smokestack inspection, agriculture and aerial photography. But hundreds more applications are pending, as the industry urges faster regulatory action.

In 2012, Congress ordered the FAA to integrate drones into the skies with passenger planes by September 2015. Watchdogs have said the agency is unlikely to meet that deadline. The FAA proposal for small drones, which is open for public comment now, is expected to take 18 months to two years to complete.

Amazon (AMZN) shares were flat in after-hours trading.

The approval was granted under an airworthiness certificate that requires Amazon to report monthly to the FAA. The reports must include the number of flights, a pilot duty time per flight, any malfunctions, deviation and instructions from air-traffic controllers and unintended loss of links between the aircraft and remote pilot.

Amazon ignited interest in the commercial use of drones with a December 2013 story on 60 Minutes about the prospects for drones to deliver products bought on its website. But the company has bristled at the slow development of FAA rules for commercial drones.

The FAA released a long-awaited proposal in February for rules governing remote-controlled aircraft weighing up to 55 pounds. But even that development required a pilot for each drone, which could hinder deliveries envisioned along automatic flying directions.

The approval Thursday allows Amazon to expand its research in coordination with the FAA. Amazon committed to following safety rules strictly.

“At Amazon, our energy comes from inventing on behalf of customers,” the company’s associate general counsel, Stephanie Burns, wrote last month in asking for FAA approval. “Amazon Prime Air, a new delivery system that will get packages to customers in 30 minutes or less using small aerial vehicles, is one invention we are incredibly passionate about.”

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