Amazon is testing out its delivery drones in a secret location in Canada

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If your Amazon order gets delivered by a drone sometime in the near future, you’ll know Canada helped make that happen.

Seattle-based Amazon wants to deliver packages of under 2.3 kilograms (five pounds) in 30 minutes or less using its Amazon Prime Air autonomous drones in the near future.

But in the company’s home country, it’s had a hard time getting approval to do the tests it needs to make that a reality. U.S. rules on drone testing are restrictive and waits for approval are long.

So Amazon is conducting outdoor flight tests in Canada instead, something that many companies dealing in drones are starting to get interested in.

Amazon spokeswoman Kristen Kish confirmed in an email to CBC News that Amazon is doing controlled flight tests of drone prototypes in multiple international locations, including outdoors at a rural test site in Canada.

“We are rapidly experimenting and iterating on Amazon Prime Air, working to make it a reality,” she said.

According to Transport Canada, the testing licence given to the Canadian-owned arm of Amazon went into effect on Dec. 17 and is good for a year. It specifies the drones’ maximum altitude, minimum distances from people and property, operating areas and requirements for co-ordinating with air traffic services.

Amazon’s secret Canadian test site is located in B.C., close to the U.S. border, reports the Guardian in the U.K.

The Federal Aviation Authority — the U.S. aviation regulator — announced earlier this month that it had granted Amazon approval to do outdoor testing of its delivery drones at a site in rural Washington.

However, the approval had taken so long — six months — that the approved model was “obsolete,” Paul Misener, Amazon’s vice-president for global public policy, told the U.S. Senate committee on commerce, science and transportation a few days later.

“The permission the FAA granted is more restrictive than are the rules and approvals by which we conduct outdoor testing in the U.K. and elsewhere,” he added, noting that in most countries, approval takes just weeks. Transport Canada says it aims to process applications within 20 working days.

Diana Cooper, an Ottawa-based lawyer who specializes in drone regulation, said the problem is that in the U.S., commercial drones are generally prohibited. In order to be able to test drones, a company must get an exemption from the ban.

While Canada has been giving out permits for commercial drones on a case-by-case basis for nearly a decade, the U.S. just started last fall and has only given out a few dozen, said Cooper, head of the unmanned aerial systems and robotics practice group at the law firm LaBarge Weinstein LLP.

“They’re very difficult to get, take months to get, and they’re not very permissive,” she said.

U.S. permits have requirements that don’t exist in Canada. For example, in the U.S., the drone operator must have a pilot’s licence. They also ban operation of a drone that the pilot can’t see directly at all times, something that Amazon deems essential to automated drone delivery.

“I think the rules make it difficult for companies to fully develop their technology.”

In Canada, there are ways to test drones that aren’t within the direct line of sight of operators. For example, Cooper said, Amazon obtained its own private, restricted airspace in B.C.

Amazon isn’t alone with its difficulty getting drones approved in the U.S.

Other drone testers coming to Canada

Angela Schoellig, a drone researcher at the University of Toronto, said she and her collaborators at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology tried in two different ways to get licences to conduct drone tests for research in the U.S. and weren’t successful.

“And that’s pretty standard,” she said.

The researchers ended up doing outdoor tests in Canada.

“In Canada, it’s mostly about safety,” she said. “If you show that you know what you are doing, it’s very likely that you’ll get a licence.”

That’s drawing many companies like Amazon to do their drone testing in Canada. Cooper said she’s been getting a lot of inquiries from prospective clients in the U.S. and Europe who are wondering how they can set up testing here and what kind of testing they can do.

She added, “It’s a great win for Canada.”

Dave Kroetsch, president and CEO of Aeryon Labs, a Waterloo, Ont.-based drone maker, said that the U.S. rules may seem restrictive for a company like Amazon, but they are broad enough for most other applications, such as inspecting roofs and reconstructing vehicle collisions.

However, he said, it’s fantastic that Amazon is pushing new limits and able to move to Canada to develop its technology.

Kroestch warned, though, that it will be years before Amazon’s technology can be deployed on a large scale.

“It’s going to take quite awhile to prove that one of these things is safe to fly above the highway,” he said. “Imagine it crashed on the 401. You could cause a 30-car pileup if it didn’t work out well.”

By Emily Chung, CBC News

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