Amazon is testing its drone delivery service at a secret site in Canada, following repeated warnings by the e-commerce giant that it would go outside the US to bypass what it sees as the US federal government’s lethargic approach to the new technology.
The largest internet retailer in the world is keeping the location of its new test site closely guarded. What can be revealed is that the company’s formidable team of roboticists, software engineers, aeronautics experts and pioneers in remote sensing – including a former Nasa astronaut and the designer of the wingtip of the Boeing 787 – are now operating in British Columbia.
The end goal is to utilise what Amazon sees as a slice of virgin airspace – above 200ft, where most buildings end, and below 500ft, where general aviation begins. Into that aerial slice the company plans to pour highly autonomous drones of less than 55lbs, flying through corridors 10 miles or longer at 50mph and carrying payloads of up to 5lbs that account for 86% of all the company’s packages.
Amazon has acquired a plot of open land lined by oak trees and firs, where it is conducting frequent experimental flights with the full blessing of the Canadian government. As if to underline the significance of the move, the test site is barely 2,000ft from the US border, which was clearly visible from where the Guardian stood on a recent visit.
The Guardian was invited to visit Amazon’s previously undisclosed Canadian drone test site, where it has been conducting outdoor flights for the past few months. For the duration of the visit, three plain-clothed security guards kept watch from the surrounding hills.
Amazon’s drone visionaries are taking the permissive culture on the Canadian side of the border and using it to fine-tune the essential features of what they hope will become a successful delivery-by-drone system. The Guardian witnessed tests of a hybrid drone that can take off and land vertically as well as fly horizontally.
The company’s decision to set up camp in Canada, after frustration in its attempts to persuade US regulators to allow it to launch its drones in Washington state, takes Amazon’s quarrel with the federal government to a new level. Last week a senior Amazon executive appeared before a US Senate subcommittee and warned that there would be consequences if federal regulators continued to act as a drag on its ambitions to launch a drone delivery service called Prime Air.
What Paul Misener, the company’s vice-president for global public policy, did not tell senators was that at the very moment he appeared before them, Amazon drones were buzzing in the skies just north of the border.
The company wants to offer its customers the ability to have packages dropped on their doorstep by flying robots within 30 minutes of ordering goods online. With innovation in the drone sector reaching lightning speeds, Amazon said it was not prepared to curtail its ambitions because of what Misener said was a lack of “impetus” on the US side of the border.
“We think that this new technology will provide huge benefits for our customers, who we think will love it, and for society more broadly,” he told the Guardian a day after the subcommittee hearing. “Why would we wait?”
Gur Kimchi, the architect and head of Prime Air, said the hope had always been to develop the drone service in the US, close to the company’s Seattle headquarters. “But we’re limited there to flying indoors and have been now for a very long time. So we do what’s necessary – we go to places where we can test outside, in this case Canada.”
Drone technology is seen by many tech companies and aeronautics experts as the next frontier for innovation, with billions of dollars potentially in the balance. Traditionally, the US has been at the vanguard of both tech and aviation innovation, but the approach of the the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA), a US regulatory body, has been markedly tentative so far compared with that of regulators in Canada and Europe.
Brendan Schulman, a New York-based specialist in drone law, said the Guardian’s disclosure of Amazon’s Canadian airstrip-in-exile should be a “serious wake-up call to politicians and regulators”.
“America has led the world in aviation development,” he said, “but for the first time in history we are at risk of losing out. To see one of our most innovative companies forced over the border is a stark example of the danger.”
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SOURCE: The Guardian