Amazon Versus The FAA

By Patrick C. Miller | March 26, 2015

Paul Misener, Amazon’s vice president of global public policy, made headlines on Tuesday when he testified before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Aviation Operations, Safety, and Security. He expressed the company’s displeasure at the pace with which the FAA moved to give it permission to conduct research and development for Prime Air, its project for package delivery via unmanned aerial system (UAS)

Misener informed committee members that the unmanned system for which Amazon had submitted its request is now obsolete, sending the desired message that the FAA is holding back Amazon and the rest of the country’s UAS innovation and development. This is somewhat disingenuous.

What’s important to remember is that last year in early December, Misener sent a letter to James Williams, manager of the FAA’s UAS Integration Office, in which he rejected the FAA’s recommendation—made in October—to pursue an experimental certification rather than a Section 333 exemption for commercial operations. 

By rejecting the FAA’s advice rather than finding a way to cooperate and move forward with its UAS R&D at home, Amazon lost time and ended up this month exactly where the FAA suggested it go last fall.

Conducting some form of outdoor R&D in the U.S. would have been preferable to doing nothing. If Amazon truly wanted to keep its UAS R&D efforts in this country, it would have been more productive to follow the guidance offered by the federal agency in charge of the process rather than refusing to budge because it didn’t get everything it wanted.

Amazon wanted a Section 333 exemption giving it an FAA waiver to conduct commercial operations. The FAA wanted to give Amazon permission to test its UAS technology without throwing open the door to commercial operations. The FAA hasn’t allowed anyone to operate UAS commercially beyond visual line of sight. In fact, during his testimony, Misener admitted that no other country is allowing Amazon to operate in this manner.

Misener told the senators that safety is Amazon’s top priority. It’s a bit of a stretch to believe that Amazon is more conscious of aviation safety than the FAA, the government agency with decades of experience in managing the world’s most complex airspace and generally doing a good job of it.

This is not to say that Amazon doesn’t care about safety or would engage in unsafe UAS operations. But when it comes to understanding the national airspace and knowing what’s safe and what’s not, the FAA is far more experienced and in a much better position to know than nearly any company.

Last year when I interviewed representatives with the six video production companies that received the first FAA commercial operation waivers, they weren’t uniformly satisfied with what they got, but they were thrilled to be operating UAS as part of their businesses.

Hal Winer, director of operations for Astraeus Arial, noted that the company had a proprietary system which enabled its UAV to fly blind. However, the FAA restrictions prevented them from using it in that manner.

“We anticipate that rule changing down the road, but for right now, we’re fine with it. We’ll take what we can get,” he said.

Chris Schuster, owner of Vortex Aerial, commented: “Honestly, I have a newfound respect for that branch of our government. Being that we’ve been working hand in hand with these people, we’ve learned that the time commitments and the perceived delays were actually very well justified by the Federal Aviation Administration.”

So let’s be clear: Amazon is in its current position with UAS R&D in the U.S. because of the decisions it made, not because the FAA purposely held it back. With UAS integration, the FAA has used the approach of “let’s learn to walk before we run.” It’s not an unreasonable approach, although it is understandably frustrating for private businesses accustomed to quickly adopting new innovations and technology.

While there’s always room for improvement and certainly areas in which the process can be streamlined—as the FAA demonstrated this week—Congress should avoid being pressured into short-circuiting the process and introducing unnecessary risks. The UAS safety concerns of airline pilots, helicopter pilots and crop dusters are valid and should be of higher priority than Amazon’s desire to deliver packages in 30 minutes or less.