FAA moves ahead on commercial drones

The aviation agency issues two significant approvals for commercial unmanned aircraft.

Amazon Prime Air's Delivery Drone (Amazon/YouTube)

The Federal Aviation Administration has signed off on two approvals for key commercial unmanned aircraft projects.

On June 5, the agency granted a "special airworthy certificate" to Amazon for its Prime Air drone-based package delivery service, an FAA spokesperson said in a statement emailed to FCW. The certificate allows Amazon to "operate its MK27 unmanned aircraft for research and development and crew training in authorized flight areas," it said.

"Amazon Prime Air plans to use the aircraft to establish a package delivery operation in the United States," according to the statement. The certificate is good for one year and renewable.

The same day, Amazon executives unveiled the company's latest design for the Prime Air system at the company's technology conference in Las Vegas.

Amazon Worldwide Consumer CEO Jeff Wilke told attendees at the Machine Learning, Automation, Robotics and Space (re:MARS) conference that the company has developed drone aircraft equipped with thermal, visual and ultrasonic sensors that can safely deliver packages under five pounds within a 15 mile radius in less than 30 minutes. He said during the presentation the service would come online "within months."

In a separate development, the FAA announced on June 4 that it had issued its first waiver to Colorado-based Hensel Phelps Construction Company to allow a Chinese-made DJI Phantom 4 drone equipped with a safety parachute to operate over people at its job sites. The drone is equipped with automatic engine shut off and a parachute recovery system. The waiver could be a template for the wider use in the commercial unmanned aircraft systems market, it said.

According to a statement by the parachute systems' maker ParaZero on the FAA's action, the commercial drone market ''has been limited by the agency's Part 107 rules that prohibit commercial unmanned aircraft from flying over people for safety reasons.

ParaZero said its SafeAir on-board drone safety system independently monitors the aircraft's avionics system looking for anomalies and flight patterns. When a failure is detected, the company said its system stops the drone's rotor blades and deploys a parachute that prevents the aircraft from tumbling out of the sky in an uncontrolled decent.

The FAA said it worked with industry on the waiver, developing a publicly available standard collaborating on testing and data to meet the waiver requirements.