Amazon to tap UK airspace and expertise for drone lab

Amazon plans to test prototype same-day delivery drones in the UK as it awaits approval to conduct outdoor tests in the US

Amazon plans to test its prototype same-day delivery drones in the UK as it awaits approval to conduct outdoor tests in the US.

Currently in the UK, drones of less than 20kg can be used in the operator's line of sight and with the permission of the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA).

The CAA also bans drones within 150m of built-up areas, but by its own admission, has few established operating guidelines for the unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) compared with manned and model aircraft.

However, use of drones in the UK raises significant safety, security and privacy concerns, according to the latest University of Birmingham Policy Commission report.

The report raises security concerns that drones could be used by terror groups, criminals and paparazzi, and calls for urgent measures by the CAA to safeguard UK privacy and airspace.

Amazon rival Google is conducting trials of its own drone prototypes in Australia, which was chosen for its relatively flexible rules on the use of the devices.

Amazon is still awaiting the outcome of an application made in July 2014 to the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to test drones capable of carrying 2.3kg packages at speeds of up to 50mph.

Google’s two-year-old Project Wing has already been used in trials to deliver goods with a mass of up to 1.5kg to remote farms in Queensland, Australia.

Amazon and others are lobbying the FAA to relax the rules, and in June 2014 the administration approved the first commercial drone flight over land for energy firm BP.

The online retailer’s UK drone testing is planned for Cambridge – home to startup Evi Technologies, which was acquired by Amazon in October 2012.

Amazon plans to set up a lab to focus on its drone delivery project called Prime Air, tapping into the pool of academics and researchers in Cambridge, according to The Guardian.

The Prime Air lab has already started advertising UK jobs, including roles such as flight operations engineers, research scientists and a site leader, the paper said.

The job ads indicate successful applicants can expect to collaborate closely with Amazon’s flight engineering and flight test teams in Seattle, reports the Telegraph.

"We're looking for aerospace, systems, or other engineers with extensive UAS flight experience. Success will require attention to detail, a safety-oriented attitude, flexibility and creative problem-solving," it said.

Speeding up deliveries

Prime Air is one of several Amazon projects aimed at finding ways to speed up deliveries, in an attempt to stay ahead of competitors.

Amazon recently introduced its first same-day Pass My Parcel collection service in the UK through a network of 500 newsagents and convenience stores.

Drones are being investigated as the next frontier in deliveries, with Amazon, Google and German courier company DHL leading the charge.

In September 2014, DHL announced the first regular drone delivery service that uses autonomous quadcopters to deliver small parcels to Juist, a sandbar island seven miles off the German coast.

However, the use of drones for delivery faces several challenges, starting with developing safety systems that will enable drones to navigate around each other and handle problems such as mechanical failure.

Developers will also find ways of ensuring the drones only use routes that do not affect people on the ground. Some analysts believe developing and testing such systems could take years.

In addition to these challenges, would-be drone operators could face regulatory challenges as increased private and commercial use of drones is likely to result in stricter guidelines.

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