What did the FAA really grant to Amazon and Why?

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The Amazon drive towards a drone-based distribution system has been the #1 story about UAS commercial applications. The powerhouse, visionary company announced its intentions on national television, has been a vocal critic of the FAA’s tardiness in issuing the relevant rules, does not like the Part 107 NPRM and has threatened moving of its operational tests to another country Not surprisingly, the reactions to the FAA’s grant of an experimental airworthiness certificate (EAC) for its UAS mis- or over- interpret the extent of this authority. Here’s what really happened.

First and foremost, the FAA’s issuance of an EAC to Amazon is neither unique nor the first such grant to test a UAS. It is a normal predicate for issuance of a permanent Type Certificate for UAS or many other aircraft. The point of this action is to allow the “applicant” to collect data to prove that the aircraft meets the FAA’s airworthiness standards. Since the certificating agency has not issued its rules to measure what is expected, Amazon’s task is complicated.

Second, some of the writers seem to indicate that the FAA’s March 19 decision allows the mass merchandiser to deliver NOW. Careful review demonstrates that such an eventuality is not imminent. Amazon must develop extensive data which proves its aircraft’s airworthiness, such as the ability of the vehicle to sustain stress within some defined flight parameters.

In addition, the EAC holder will have to develop data beyond the typical airworthiness; their test operations will need to create numbers which will have support the safety of Amazon’s proposed flights. Basically, the demonstration UAS flights must justify a totally new set of rules for operation. For example, the proposed Part 107 will neither permit flights over populated areas, nor accept the Amazon model of deliveries beyond a line of sight from the pilot/operator. In order for the FAA to issue rules which justify the additional “risks” not acceptable under the proposed rules.

Thus, under its EAC test program, Amazon will have to establish reliability of operations which would support an FAA finding that the contemplated delivery system will not crash, to some very high level of probability, while flying over populated areas. The record will also have to show that their drones will not pose problems for other aircraft.

What is an acceptable accident will be a point of negotiation/discussion/ between the regulator and the regulated will be a difficult process. For example, what will be the relevant safety threshold be: 0.9999 chance of damage to property on the ground, 0.99999 likelihood of bodily harm to the general populace, etc.

After the operating history within the experimental site is documented, Amazon will submit the “proof” to the FAA of its vehicle and of the flight limitations which it asserts are safe. That’s an extensive exercise.

Third, as some writers acknowledged, the EAC has limitations, such as:

· flight operations must be conducted at 400 feet or below,

· during daylight hours,

· in visual meteorological conditions.,

· always remain within visual line-of-sight of the pilot and observer.

· the pilot flying the aircraft must have at least a private pilot’s certificate which requires a current medical certification.

· Amazon must provide monthly data to the FAA, including:

o the number of flights conducted,

o pilot duty time per flight, unusual hardware or software malfunctions,

o any deviations from air traffic controllers’ instructions, and

o any unintended loss of communication links.

· test flights may only operate over private, rural land in Washington state, and

· only a specific drone may be used

o if it modifies the aircraft or flies a different version, it must reapply to the FAA, thus consuming time before the new version may be flown.

One should not assume that these are draconian or unnecessarily difficult conditions; for the list can be found in almost any EAC issuance.

Why does this process appear so burdensome? Unlike the automobile model introduction, Congress has decided that before a vehicle may be flown an independent governmental body must be shown that the aircraft and its operations will be safe. That Piper Cub or advanced technology B-787 receives the same level of scrutiny through the same process.

History suggests that the early performance of a new aircraft has great influence on the public’s acceptance of it. An early crash has been known to influence the general populace’s opinion. If, during the initiation of UAS service, there is an unfortunate accident, it is reasonable that Congress will demand stricter rules and/or application thereof. A cautious approach is both legally mandated, but also supportive of the UAS industry’s growth.

Amazon’s threats (political?) may have caused the FAA to create an immediate regulatory release valve. However, when the EAC test phase is over, the proof of its drone’s airworthiness and of the safety of its distribution operations by UASs MUST BE shown in great detail and complete transparency.

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