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Rural British Columbia Home to Amazon Drone Test Site, Company Confirms

March 30, 2015 5:47 PM | The Canadian Press

By Michelle McQuigge, The Canadian Press

Amazon has picked Canada as one of its testing grounds for the drones that the online retail giant hopes to one day use to deliver packages to customers within 30 minutes of receiving an order, the company confirmed Monday.

Spokeswoman Kristen Kish said the company is operating a testing facility in rural British Columbia, though she declined to reveal its specific location.

The B.C. test site is one of several international locations set up to help get Amazon’s Prime Air project off the ground both literally and figuratively.

Amazon executives have publicly argued that rules imposed by the U.S. Federal Aviation Authority are too restrictive for proper testing, adding regulations in place in foreign countries allow the company to properly refine their proposed drone delivery system.

“We are rapidly experimenting and iterating on Amazon Prime Air, working to make it a reality. This includes controlled flight testing in multiple international locations, including outdoors at a rural test site in Canada,” Kish told the Canadian Press in an email.

“We’re excited about this technology and one day using it to deliver packages to customers in 30 minutes or less.”

Transport Canada says Amazon has had permission to operate its test facility since Dec. 17, 2014, the day on which it was issued a Special Flight Operations Certificate (SFOC).

Spokeswoman Sara Johnston said the terms of the certificate allow Amazon to test its drones until Dec. 19 of this year. She said the arrangement contains specific conditions regarding maximum altitudes and minimum distances from people or property, but declined to offer details.

Kish said the arrangement with Canada gives the company permission to test a variety of different drones within a category of Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS).

Regulations in the U.S., where Amazon’s headquarters are located, are much more restrictive. The country’s Federal Aviation Administration only granted Amazon permission to test its drones outdoors last week after months of public wrangling.

Paul Misener, Amazon’s Vice-President of Global Public Policy, recently appealed to the U.S. government to bring its aviation rules in line with its international peers.

Speaking before a U.S. senate subcommittee last week, Misener outlined the reasons why the company felt compelled to take its testing project beyond U.S. borders.

“Our testing abroad has required but minimal aviation regulatory approval, given the low risk presented by our small UAS designs; the R&D nature of our flight activity; and our relatively rural test sites,” Misener said according to a transcript of his remarks.

“Nowhere outside of the United States have we been required to wait more than one or two months to begin testing, and permission has been granted for operating a category of UAS, giving us room to experiment and rapidly perfect designs without being required to continually obtain new approvals for specific UAS vehicles.”

Misener acknowledged the recent FAA approval, but said it came too late. The federal agency granted permission for testing one specific type of drone design, one Misener said the retailer abandoned months ago.

Canada has some parameters in place for the use of drones, such as keeping at least eight kilometres away from airports and not hovering above 90 metres.

Federal Transport Minister Lisa Raitt said Monday that Canada is a world leader in drone technology, specifically when it comes to making sure that the right rules are in place.

“We have real rules and a real application process to go through. We encourage people to do that,” Raitt said in Ottawa.

“In terms of Amazon and companies like that, Canada Post, whoever wants to utilize this technology in their day-to-day businesses, I’d encourage them to talk to Transport Canada,” she said. “We have a wealth of experience, and we certainly want to keep up with the times, and we don’t want to be behind the technology curve.”

Amazon created a media frenzy in December 2013 when it outlined a plan to make drones a key part of its package delivery system.

Amazon’s application to the FAA said it was developing aircraft that could travel up to 80 kilometres an hour and carry up to 2.3 kilograms, adding 86 per cent of its deliveries were of packages within that weight range.

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