UAS expert reacts to Amazon's experimental UAS certificate

By Emily Aasand | March 25, 2015

Last week, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration issued an experimental airworthiness certificate to an Amazon Logistics Inc. unmanned aircraft system (UAS) design that the company will use for research and development and crew training.

Under the certificate, all flight operations must be conducted at 400 feet or below during daylight hours in favorable weather conditions. The UAS must stay within line-of-sight of the pilot and the pilot of the aircraft must have a private pilot’s certificate and current medical certification.

“The company must report the number of flights conducted, pilot duty time per flight, unusual hardware or software malfunctions, any deviations from air traffic controllers’ instructions, and any unintended loss of communication links,” the FAA said.

A spokesperson from the FAA told UAS Magazine that this experimental UAS certificate allows Amazon to do research and development, but that it is still unable to operate commercially.

“I think it’s nice for them [Amazon] to finally get outdoors in the U.S., so that’s a step in the right direction. But this route isn’t what they would’ve wanted it to be. I’m sure they would’ve liked even more flexibility than they have, but again, it’s a step in the right direction,” said Michael Sievers, a counsel at Hunton & Williams.

After sifting through the FAA documents and petitions, Sievers said it was pretty clear that Amazon was urged by the FAA to pursue this route.

“My sense is that it’s a sign that the FAA wanted to try to make progress on the Amazon front but wasn’t ready to go as far as Amazon wanted to go initially,” Sievers added.

The certificate still restricts Amazon to one individual flying on private property in rural Washington, but allows the company to test in outdoor conditions, which have more variability in terms of wind and other factors, according to Sievers, which he believes will be helpful for them.

“Having to get a special airworthiness certificate in the experimental category for each iteration of the craft they want to test is certainly what limits their flexibility,” said Sievers. “It sounds like they have multiple requests for experimental certificates in the pipeline, but it’s not as easy as if they were to change the design of the aircraft between flights that they have to get approval for before they can deploy what’s a substantially different craft.”

As for this experimental airworthiness certificate setting the precedent for future companies, Sievers said, if it’s a company’s goal to immediately begin commercial operations, this route won’t provide a viable avenue. But, he said, other companies go this route if its goals are just to conduct testing and research and development, with a long-term horizon.


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