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Amazon Asks FAA For Permission To Test Aerial Delivery Drones Near Seattle

When Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos unveiled plans for aerial drone delivery of packages last year, many observers dismissed the concept as science fiction or pie-in-the-sky.

Not at Amazon though. The Seattle-based company has asked the Federal Aviation Administration for permission to test drones outdoors and is awaiting an answer.

Amazon asked federal regulators for a limited exemption from the current ban on commercial use of drones. The company seeks permission to conduct flight tests over private property it owns outside Seattle.

Amazon's legal department assured the FAA that the testing can be done safely. Small, battery powered drones would fly no higher than 400 feet off the ground, remain within line-of-sight of the operator, and have a kill switch if something goes wrong.

The application says Amazon's R&D lab in Seattle is "developing aerial vehicles that travel over 50 miles per hour, and will carry five?pound payloads, which cover 86 percent of products sold on Amazon." The e-commerce giant says its eventual goal is to have the capability to deliver packages to consumers within thirty minutes of purchase.

Amazon has also joined a new lobbying group for companies interested in drones. Small UAV Coalition executive director Michael Drobac urges the FAA to accelerate testing approvals.

"If we do not move forward now, and allow for there to be testing and operation, we are going to be behind other nations,” Drobac said at an unmanned aircraft conference in central Oregon. “So we will be following rather than leading on technology, which will be a novel position for us."

The Amazon docket at the FAA attracted just a handful of public comments. A trade group for low-flying crop dusters was the only one to raise serious concerns about collision avoidance.

The FAA has not indicated how soon it might render a decision.

Other companies with Northwest ties have requested FAA exemptions to fly civilian drones too. BNSF Railway wants permission to use small rotocraft to inspect rail tracks. An inland Northwest startup called Advanced Aviation Solutions requested permission to fly the ultra-light, Swiss-made eBee unmanned aircraft to photograph crops for farmers wishing to do precision agriculture.

Separately, a Seattle entrepreneur named Douglas Branch -- doing business as Likeonatree Aerial -- applied for an exemption to do aerial photography with a drone.

Last week, the FAA granted a groundbreaking batch of exemptions to aerial cinematography companies who want to use drones to film scripted scenes for Hollywood movies. “We are encouraged by the FAA’s approval of these regulatory exemptions, and we believe that it will move as quickly in granting our request to conduct outdoor testing for Amazon Prime Air,” said Amazon VP for global public policy Paul Misener in an emailed statement on Friday.

On its website, Amazon has posted more than two dozen engineering and software job openings for its Prime Air team.

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.