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FAA Permit for Drone Flight School May Help Amazon, Google Speed Up Delivery Plans

Why Kansas State's polytechnic campus matters for Amazon and Google.


The Federal Aviation Administration is plotting how to regulate drones. Tech companies with plans for drones — Amazon, Google, DJI, GoPro and a bevy of others looking to tap a potential multi-billion dollar market — are itching for the FAA to get on with it already.

Last week, the agency made a small legal maneuver that, advocates hope, indicates more leniency to come on the commercial applications of drones. The FAA authorized the Kansas State University Polytechnic campus to train students and outside companies on flying unmanned aircraft. This type of authorization, called a Section 333 exemption, is common; construction sites, news outlets and disaster relief groups have received them. Amazon scored one in April.

The notable difference here is in how close the FAA lets drones get to people. Even with flight authorization, drones must stay 500 feet from people unless the craft meet some stringent safety and logistics requirements. The only exception had been on closed film and TV sets, which deploy drones for movie magic. But the FAA lifted the 500-foot restriction for the Kansas school, even though it didn’t ask for the specific closed-set exemption.

For those eager to hasten commercial drone deliveries, it’s a sign that the agency is loosening up. Amazon, which is lobbying heavily on the issue, showed off its delivery drone in an ad on Sunday; the head of Google’s drone delivery effort said it wants to get in flight by 2017. Both companies would very likely want to send their drones below 500 feet to deliver things.

The Kansas decision “may signal a significant policy change” at the FAA, the law firm Hogan Lovells wrote on Monday.

“It could potentially open doors for other industries,” said Gretchen West, a senior adviser with the firm who specializes in drones. Technical hurdles are not holding back tech companies experimenting with drones, she added. “The biggest challenge is the regulatory environment,” she said.

The FAA has pledged it will issue comprehensive drone legislation by June. While it hears extensively from tech giants and their ambassadors, the agency will also move cautiously on safety, particularly if more tragic incidents with drones like this from the U.K. crop up.

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