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Deliverance

Last week, after many months spent pining in policy purgatory, Amazon finally got the nod from the FAA to begin testing their Amazon Prime Air delivery drones. Whatever you think of Amazon’s project — viable business plan or transparent PR stunt — you’ve got to concede that they’ve been doing the whole industry a solid by consistently getting their household name out in front of the domestic drone story. The first Prime Air TV ad, in late 2013, was what finally put commercial drones on the American media’s radar, and ever since then Amazon has consistently stood up to the FAA whenever the regulatory going gets draconian, threatening to take their drone R&D overseas and by that example turning what might otherwise be only a hypothetical economic consequence into a multi-billion dollar reality.

So this is a great next step toward enabling Amazon’s research program, right? Not so fast. (Literally.) It took the FAA so long to grant Amazon this exemption — called an “experimental airworthiness certificate” — that the one specific vehicle Amazon’s application was good for has already become obsolete. Amazon shelved it a while ago and no longer uses it for research — meaning that their airworthiness certificate, for now, is only good for a paper plane.

But at the same time, we just got word today from the FAA that they’re actually speeding things up, delivering us from the limbo of the COA application. They just released a new “blanket” rule for obtaining COAs, which at one time required an application for a single particular block of airspace per operational instance — a process that could take months. Now any commercial drone operator who holds a 333 exemption can fly under 200 feet anywhere in the country — except of course for restricted airspace.

What’s more, those who already hold a Section 333 exemption automatically receive one of these blanket COAs. If you acquire an exemption in the future, the FAA will issue your COA when your exemption is approved. But if you want to fly outside the blanket parameters, the FAA still demands you obtain a separate COA specific to the airspace required for that operation.

But there’s at least some good news for Amazon lurking in this Drone Download: Google’s first delivery drone is a dud, and those Loon wi-fi balloons aren’t doing so hot, either.

Without further ado, here are the links that matter.

Headlines

The White House drone crasher won’t face charges. “He went to sleep not knowing where the drone had gone,” the US Attorney’s Office said. But he could still face civil fines from the FAA, which bans drone flights in DC. (NBC)

Amazon gets FAA approval to test drones. Their new experimental airworthiness certificate will permit the company to conduct field research outdoors, within line of sight and under the control of a licensed pilot. (NY Times)

…which Brendan Schulman, “The Drone Lawyer,” promptly called “a setback for the industry…It signals that the FAA is requiring an experimental airworthiness certificate just to design and test drones. That, in my view, is not a viable path for innovation in this field.” But the new COA regulations might change this. (Live Science)

Amazon also got some free delivery drone data this week: Jailbirds in the UK loaded a drone with a knife, drugs and phones, and flew it directly into the prison fence. (Engadget)

Following Amazon’s FAA approval, news leaked that US Senator Cory Booker (D, NJ) is prepared to introduce the “Commercial UAV Modernization Act,” a piece of legislation that would establish temporary rules to govern the commercial use of drones. If passed, the bill would signal a huge shift in the government’s approach to commercial UAVs, creating “a temporary set of conditions that will be placed on drones used for business until the FAA issues final rules on the matter.” (Forbes)

The first unmanned aircraft business park in the US — called “Grand Sky” — is scheduled to begin construction this May on an old Air Force bomber base in North Dakota. The 1.2 million-square-foot park is bankrolled in large part by Northrop Grumman and will serve as a testing site and home to several national and international UAV companies. (AP)

Google scrapped its initial “Project Wing” delivery drone design, a vertical takeoff/landing drone (VTOL), because it was “too hard to control.” In other news, the head of Google X is actually named Astro Teller. (Wall Street Journal)

More deflating: A balloon from Google’s Project Loon wi-fi delivery experiment crashed in central Mexico. (FWIW, Amazon’s drones are powered by Pixhawk; Google’s are not.) (CBS)

And seventy-five years ago, out of a truly lunatic balloon delivery department, there came Fu Go: Japan floated thousands of bomb-laden balloons across the Pacific to terrorize the US mainland during WWII. A lot of them actually made it. Don’t miss this story if you have the time. (Radiolab)

Shameless self-promotion!

Join 3DR at NAB! Register online and use this code to get into NAB as our guest — for free: LV8634. This code expires on March 27, after which date you’ll have to pay a $25 processing fee to use it. NAB 2015 will take place April 13–16 at the Las Vegas Convention Center. Come hang with us at booth C4309, in the Central Hall.

The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative awarded the CARTHE research team first place for their video Drones at the Beach — filmed with 3DR copters by our incredibly gifted and ambitious friends at Waterlust. Over 37,000 middle school students across twenty-one countries selected the winning ocean science research videos after a two-month evaluation of the top entries that best explained scientific results and significance.

Here’s a great — and extensive — review of the IRIS+ from National Geographic’s Kike Calvo.

And 3DR CEO Chris Anderson offers a take on dronies for this Associated Press video story about our age of constant self-documentation: “A dronie puts you in your surroundings in a way that your arm never could.”

The Winner’s Circle: New York City Drone Film Festival

The first annual NYCDFF has concluded, and you can watch all the winners right here.

“X Factor” category: OK GO, “I Won’t Let You Down”

Narrative: Superman with a GoPro

Dronie: Floating

Architecture: The Fallout

Audience Choice: Mexico City Airport from Above. (How’d he convince the authorities to let him do this?!)

Best in Show: Superman with a GoPro

And Motherboard’s festival takeaway? Dub step. “If the intention in the selections was to reflect the current drone zeitgeist, I think it did that well. The thing is, the current drone zeitgeist is pretty narrow, even if the shots are wide.”

Commentary

Security concerns following the White House drone crash? Here’s a thorough and rational evaluation of possible threats and defenses. (Center for the Study of the Drone)

This great long-form piece examines the daunting challenge of managing all the drones that will soon be in American skies, while not stifling any of the returns. (Take Part)

France now has more registered drone businesses than wine appellations. Here’s how they got a huge jump on the commercial drone market, and what it means for the US. “The market potential is in the billions.” (Bloomberg)

Tech

The popular HBO show Game of Thrones has banned drones from the airspace over their filming locations. While one might presume it’s because of all those “game of drones” puns, really it’s to limit leaks and spoilers. (NY Daily News)

The new Skyprowler VTOL drone has raised $250k on Kickstarter — well beyond its initial $100k ask. The Skyprowler features a camera with an integrated gimbal system, and is supposedly viable for making small person-to-person deliveries.

The 1800s, airborne: World’s first pinhole photo captured by drone. Next: drones conduct leechings and deliver letters. (That pinhole photo is actually really cool, though.) (Petapixel)

Kansas State University leads an international, multimillion-dollar project that will research drones as a quick and efficient method to detect pest insects and diseases in food crops before outbreaks happen. (UASVision)