Out-Law News 2 min. read

Amazon given permission to test drone deliveries in the US

Online retail giant Amazon has been given permission to test the delivery of goods using unmanned aircraft, or drones, in the US.

The Federal Aviation Administration has granted Amazon an "experimental airworthiness certificate", clearing the company to engage in its Amazon Prime Air testing programme in the US. However, the FAA has placed conditions on Amazon's certification.

"Under the provisions of the certificate, all flight operations must be conducted at 400 feet or below during daylight hours in visual meteorological conditions," the FAA said. "The [drone] must always remain within visual line-of-sight of the pilot and observer. The pilot actually flying the aircraft must have at least a private pilot’s certificate and current medical certification."

"The certificate also requires Amazon to provide monthly data to the FAA. The company must report the number of flights conducted, pilot duty time per flight, unusual hardware or software malfunctions, any deviations from air traffic controllers’ instructions, and any unintended loss of communication links," it said.

The development will be of interest to retailers operating in the UK.  Legal expert in the retail sector Samantha Livesey of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said:

"Whilst the use of drones for commercial purposes from a retail perspective is still at an early stage of development in the UK, this new technology has the potential to be hugely disruptive to the market in cutting distribution costs and so is likely to be of particular interest to on-line retailers," Livesey said. "However, there are a number of legal and regulatory barriers to be cleared before retailers and distribution businesses can consider employing this means of goods delivery."

"Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) regulations currently prohibit the use of small unmanned aircraft for commercial purposes without permission from the regulator," Livesey said. "As part of the authorisation process businesses have to provide the CAA with specific information including the purpose of their proposed drone use. Permission is also required to fly any camera-fitted drone over congested areas.  Where these cameras take images which can identify individuals, the activity will also be subject to the UK's Data Protection Act."

"This means retailers, and others using such equipment, will need to take steps such as notifying individuals about the potential for their image to be captured and the purpose of that activity and restricting access to the footage or photographs captured," she said.

The Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) has issued a code of practice on surveillance cameras which includes particular guidance for commercial operators of drones. A ruling by the EU's highest court late last year means that hobbyists' use of drones in public also needs to adhere to data protection rules where they capture images of individuals.

"Other legal considerations for retailers thinking of using drones include whether they could be held liable for serious injuries, death or damage to property if a technical fault caused a drone to crash, and the reputational issues that would arise from such an event," Livesey said. "From a practical perspective, retailers would need to ensure they can verify the correct individuals receive the goods, that their drone operators remain liable for damage to or loss of goods during delivery and that their delivery policies cover severe weather conditions which could affect the ability for drones to operate." 

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