The Federal Aviation Administration said on Thursday it issued an experimental airworthiness certificate to an Amazon business unit and its prototype drone, allowing test flights over private, rural land in Washington state.
The approval is a win for Seattle-based Amazon, the largest e-commerce company in the United States, and advances plans by the company and others to deliver packages using small, self-piloted aircraft.
There are limitations, however. The experimental certificate applies to a particular drone and Amazon must obtain a new certification if it modifies the aircraft or flies a different version, making it difficult to adapt the model quickly in the field. Amazon's petition for permission indicated it was testing several iterations of a drone at an indoor facility in Seattle.
Amazon must keep flights below 400 feet (120 meters) and keep the drone in sight, according to the FAA.
The company had asked for permission to fly at altitudes up to 500 feet (150 meters.)
The drone operators must have a private pilot licenses and current medical certification. Amazon must supply monthly data to the regulators.
The company did not respond to requests for comment. Amazon public policy chief Paul Misener is set to testify at a congressional hearing on drones next Tuesday.
As part of Amazon Chief Executive Jeff Bezos' plan to deliver packages under a programme dubbed "Prime Air," the company is developing drones that fly at speeds of 50 miles per hour (80 kph), operate autonomously and sense and avoid objects. Amazon also is working with Nasa on an air-traffic management system for drones.
Amazon sought permission from the FAA to test drones in outdoor areas near Seattle, where one of its research and development labs is developing the technology. The company has conducted test flights outside the United States, in countries with looser restrictions.
In February, the FAA proposed long-awaited rules to try to set U.S. guidelines for drones, addressing growing interest from both individual and corporations in using unmanned aerial vehicles. The draft rules still must undergo public comment and revision before becoming final, which is expected to take at least a year.
© Thomson Reuters 2015