(Adds new FAA drone policy in paragraphs 6 and 7; and FAA defense of slow pace in paragraph 11; updates Misener quotes and background on exemptions)
By David Morgan
WASHINGTON, March 24 (Reuters) - E-commerce power Amazon.com blasted federal regulators on Tuesday for being slow to approve commercial drone testing, saying the United States is falling behind other countries in the potentially lucrative area of unmanned aviation technology.
Less than a week after the Federal Aviation Administration gave Amazon.com the green light to test a delivery drone outdoors, the company told U.S. lawmakers that the prototype had already become obsolete while the company waited more than six months for the agency’s permission.
“We don’t test it anymore. We’ve moved on to more advanced designs that we already are testing abroad,” said Paul Misener, Amazon.com’s vice president for global public policy.
“Nowhere outside of the United States have we been required to wait more than one or two months to begin testing,” Misener testified before the Senate Subcommittee on Aviation Operations, Safety and Security.
The Amazon.com case illustrates the frustrations of many industry representatives, who say the U.S. regulatory process is not keeping up with rapidly developing drone technology that could generate new revenues and cost savings for a range of industries.
Ahead of Tuesday’s hearing, the FAA sought to alleviate some of that frustration by announcing a new “blanket” approval that allows companies with exemptions from a U.S. ban on commercial drone use to fly limited operations without seeking new approval for each project.
The change affects only flights of up to 200 feet (61 metres) during daylight hours and within a drone operator’s line of sight.
Seattle-based Amazon.com, the largest e-commerce company in the United States, wants to use drones to deliver packages to its customers over distances of 10 miles (16 km) or more, which would require drones to travel autonomously while equipped with technology to avoid collisions with other aircraft.
Misener said European and other international authorities have more “reasonable” approaches that recognize the potential economic benefits of commercial drone operations.
“This low level of government attention and slow pace are inadequate, especially compared to the regulatory efforts in other countries,” Misener said, calling on regulators to begin planning now for drone systems capable of autonomous travel.
Margaret Gilligan, FAA’s associate administrator for aviation safety, defended the pace of FAA drone actions on safety grounds, saying U.S. airspace is more complex and more heavily traveled than that of other countries. She told the Senate panel that regulators could set new standards for autonomous drone operations within a year.
The FAA recently proposed rules that would lift the current ban on most commercial drone flights, but several restrictions attached would make package delivery and other business applications unfeasible.
Among other constraints, the proposed rules would limit commercial drones to an altitude of 500 feet (150 metres), allow flights only during daytime and require operators to keep the aircraft in sight at all times.
The agency does not expect to finalize the rules until late 2016 or early 2017, according to government officials. During this period, the current ban will stay in place; companies can apply for exemptions to use drones for specific business applications.
Gilligan said the FAA has granted more than 60 exemptions out of several hundred requests.
Meanwhile, Australia, Canada, France and the United Kingdom have progressed toward airspace integration and allow for commercial use, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) said in a report to the subcommittee.
Australia has granted operating certificates to 185 businesses, while several European countries have granted licenses to more than 1,000 operators, according to the report.
While the GAO said overseas restrictions are similar to those proposed by the FAA, it noted that France has begun to allow beyond-line-of-sight operations on a limited basis. (Additional reporting by Allison Lampert in Montreal Editing by Soyoung Kim and Jonathan Oatis)