Amazon Criticized by U.K. Government Over Drone Safety

  • Drone risks overstated by media, transport official says
  • Regulation should not stifle innovation, House of Lords told

A U.K. government official has criticized Amazon Inc. for not providing guidance about the safe operation of drones to customers who purchase such products from the retailer.

Robert Goodwill, the minister of state for transport and a member of Parliament, said that Amazon had so far refused to include a government pamphlet that outlines British laws that relate to flying small unmanned aircraft safely, when shipping such products to customers -- something other major British retailers, including Maplin, Currys, and Argos, routinely do.

Amazon said U.K. customers purchasing drones are pointed to a section of the company’s website with tips for responsible and safe flying. The section also includes links to the British Civil Aviation Authority guidelines and rules for recreational drones.

The increasing concerns over drone safety were highlighted earlier this week when a British Airways pilot landing at London’s Heathrow airport reported that a drone struck the airplane. The flight landed safely and while police are investigating the incident, no evidence to confirm the collision has surfaced. There were a number of confirmed near-misses between drones and manned airplanes in U.K. airspace in 2015, including four cases classified "category A," the most serious risk of collision.

Government Advice

The government pamphlet in question, first issued in Britain in 2014, reminds recreational drone operators that they must keep their aircraft flying below 400 feet, within sight at all times, away from manned aircraft and airports, and that drones equipped with cameras are not permitted to fly within 50 meters of people, vehicles or buildings. It also states that drones cannot be flown over large public gatherings, such a concerts or sporting events.

Goodwill said that the U.K. must be careful that "inflammatory" media coverage of incidents such as the recent event near Heathrow does not lead to excessive regulation of drones. "We must not allow the regulation to stifle innovation and must be sure that the regulation is proportionate to the risk," he said.

He also said that while it was possible to imagine a terrorist trying to use a drone in an attack, that drones posed less of a threat than more conventional attacks such as a car bomb or packing explosives into a suitcase.

Goodwill was testifying before the House of Lords European Union Internal Market Sub-Committee, which has previously investigated drone regulation within the 28-nation bloc.

The U.K. is considering a number of steps to try to reduce the risk of a drone colliding with commercial aircraft, including research into whether it will be possible to use radio jamming equipment to create a kind of "electronic fence" around airports, Goodwill said. He also said the department of transport was studying suggestions that all drones be fitted with chips that would allow police to trace a device’s manufacturer and which retailer had sold it -- and perhaps even who owned it.

Amazon, which has been testing the use of sophisticated commercial drones for package delivery in a number of locations, including in the U.K., has suggested that a segment of airspace between 200 and 400 feet be reserved for the exclusive use of these kinds of aircraft that have "sense-and-avoid" systems to prevent collisions. It has recommended less sophisticated recreational drones be restricted to flying under 200 feet. Goodwill said that while the U.K. was considering such proposals, he suggested no action was imminent.

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