The US Federal Aviation Administration has given Amazon’s Prime Air drone service approval to operate a fleet of drones that may soon be dropping off parcels to customers. The FAA move is crucial to Amazon’s plans to begin offering drone delivery — though this is likely to be a very incremental rollout.

Amazon has been talking about — and preparing — its Prime Air drone delivery system for years. The concept was first unveiled while a CBS 60 Minutes crew was doing a profile on Jeff Bezos and his company. Bezos told the correspondent he had a surprise, and then showed him an early prototype for a delivery drone. It became a huge story the following day, as people debated the pros and cons of having drones buzzing over their neighborhood (something that Alphabet’s WING found was not welcome in one Australian suburb). All of this happened in late 2013.

In fact, here’s a look at a portion of the 60 Minutes video:

Nearly seven years ago, on 60 Minutes

Pushing ahead

Prime Air has been pushing ahead with testing and prototypes relentlessly since that first announcement, working closely to satisfy the FAA that its drone delivery system would not pose a risk to manned aircraft or to people on the ground. The fleet, obviously, would have to be flown Beyond Visual Line of Sight.

The FAA, in preparation for these deliveries, has created a special program. It’s called the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integrated Pilot Program:

The FAA is encouraging innovation… by working with industry, state, local, and tribal governments to realize the benefits of drones, while informing future rules and regulations. Participants in these programs are among the first to prove their concepts, including package delivery by drone through part 135 air carrier certification. Part 135 certification is the only path for small drones to carry the property of another for compensation beyond visual line of sight.

Part 135, FAA Regulations

In 2015, as Amazon Prime Air pushed the ball forward, Amazon Logistics Inc. obtained an Experimental Airworthiness certificate from the FAA. That allowed them to continue tests:

Screen grab from the March 19, 2015 FAA announcement

New drones

Amazon has been exploring new drone prototypes since that time. And in June 2019, it released video of a VTOL model that it had wanted to test more seriously. It’s believed their current working model is the same, or nearly identical, to this model:

Amazon’s VTOL delivery drone

Five-stage process

The FAA has a five-stage certification process under 14 CFR, Part 135. Those phases include:

  • Pre-application
  • Formal application
  • Design assessment
  • Performance assessment
  • Administrative functions

As for Amazon, it says the next step is for it to begin testing customer deliveries:

This certification is an important step forward for Prime Air and indicates the FAA’s confidence in Amazon’s operating and safety procedures for an autonomous drone delivery service that will one day deliver packages to our customers around the world. We will continue to develop and refine our technology to fully integrate delivery drones into the airspace, and work closely with the FAA and other regulators around the world to realize our vision of 30-minute delivery.

David Carbon, VP, Prime Air

What’s next?

Amazon says it hopes to begin testing in sparsely populated areas, and with packages weighing less than five pounds. We’ll let you know when it announces the tests.

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