Amazon partners with U.K. government to test its drones

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Amazon today announced that it has partnered with the U.K. government to test some of the technologies that may one day enable its Prime Air drone delivery service.

In a partnership with the U.K. Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), Amazon now has the permission to explore beyond-line-of-sight operations in rural and suburban areas (something the U.S.’s Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) does not currently allow), test flights where a single person monitors and operates multiple autonomous drones and trial its sense and avoid technologies. All of these tests will happen in airspace under 400 feet.

“The UK is a leader in enabling drone innovation — we’ve been investing in Prime Air research and development here for quite some time,” said Paul Misener, Amazon’s Vice President of Global Innovation Policy and Communications, in today’s announcement. “This announcement strengthens our partnership with the UK and brings Amazon closer to our goal of using drones to safely deliver parcels in 30 minutes to customers in the UK and elsewhere around the world.”

Amazon says the CAA will be fully involved in these tests and that the outcome will “help inform the development of future policy and regulation in this area.”

While the FAA recently announced its rules for commercial drone usage in the U.S., the regulations currently don’t allow for drone delivery services because they, among other things, only allow for line-of-sight operations. There is no way Amazon could run its service under those rules, so the company is obviously looking to trial its technology in other countries instead. Amazon’s Prime Air division already has a base in the U.K. and it’s been testing its drones there for a while. Jeff Bezos also recently disclosed that Amazon is currently testing its drones in the Netherlands, too (in addition to Canada).

Speaking at an Amazon event earlier this month, Liam Maxwell, national technology adviser to the U.K. government, noted that the U.K. was one of the most progressive countries when it comes to testing new autonomous technologies like drones, and Amazon was among “a lot of major companies” testing products outside of main aviation spaces.

While today’s agreement doesn’t exactly give Amazon permission to start drone deliveries, it marks a major step forward for Amazon’s ambitions in this area.

“We are committed to realise our mission for Prime Air,” said Daniel Buchmueller, the co-founder of Amazon’s drone program who is partly based out of Cambridge, U.K. as Amazon’s aviation lead in the country, at a drone event the company held in London earlier this month. “We won’t launch until we can demonstrate safe operations.”

Amazon is currently testing devices that weigh less than 55 pounds (25 kg), are battery-powered, can operate beyond line of sight of 10 miles, fly under 400 feet and travel over 50 mph. They are programmed to work with multiple redundancies in case of mechanical failures, and also include sensors and avoidance technology.

“Many products are small and light, and we can efficiently move packages up to 2 kg in 30 minutes or less using small aerial drones,” Buchmueller said.

So what does all of this mean for Amazon’s drone delivery plans? “With Amazon Prime Air, we’re developing a rapid delivery system that is safe, environmentally sound and enhances the services we already provide to millions of customers,” a company spokesperson told us. “This announcement brings us one step closer to realizing this amazing innovation for our customers.”

As for Amazon’s plans in the U.S., the same spokesperson noted that Amazon is “working with regulators and policymakers in many countries in order to make Prime Air a reality for our customers and expect to continue to do so.”