Amazon Completes First UAS Delivery Across the Pond

Amazon successfully completed its first unmanned aircraft delivery to one lucky customer in Cambridge, England last week.  The Prime Air delivery arrived at the customer’s house just 13 minutes after the order was placed.  Amazon’s Prime Air trial allows customers around Cambridge to choose from “thousands of items” at its nearby fulfillment center.

Once the order has been processed and all safety checks have been completed, there is no human involvement in the delivery of the product or the return of the aircraft to the facility.  During the trip, the aircraft fly no higher than 400 feet and carry packages up to five pounds.  Prime Air endeavors to deliver packages to customers in less than 30 minutes.

In the United States, Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) regulatory restrictions currently do not permit widespread deployment of delivery by unmanned aircraft systems (“UAS”).  Part 107 of the FAA’s rules, which governs commercial UAS operations, requires operators to remain within visual line of sight (“VLOS”) of the aircraft, prohibits flights over people, and limits carriage of property to purely intrastate operations.  Moreover, many states and municipalities are actively engaged in promulgating UAS legislation that could further inhibit the deployment of delivery services by restricting when and where unmanned aircraft can operate—restrictions that likely are preempted by federal law.

There is some room to work around the existing Part 107 limitations.  The FAA rules designate the flights-over-people and VLOS restrictions as waivable, which means that UAS operators can obtain FAA authorization on a case-by-case basis to conduct these operations if the operator can make the requisite safety showings.  The FAA already has granted waivers to CNN to permit flights over people and to BNSF Railway and PrecisionHawk to permit UAS operation beyond VLOS (“BVLOS”).  In addition, the FAA has permitted testing of UAS drone delivery systems at its Virginia Tech test site.

The FAA is also looking to alleviate some of the cumbersome operating restrictions on a more widespread basis, and is moving in the right direction in this area.  The agency expects to release a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on flights over people in early 2017, and also has plans to conduct a rulemaking on BVLOS.  However, the agency’s intrastate limitation (imposed to avoid entanglement with the FAA’s more complicated regulatory regime for “air carriers,” which haul people and property across state lines) and the proliferation of restrictive local UAS regulation may present unique and persistent challenges for aspiring UAS delivery services.

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