Prime Air in India . . . Not so Fast!

Speed is essential to success in the private sector.  Being the first into a market with a good idea can launch a company into an unassailable position, or at least leave competitors with a years-long slog to try to catch up.  Unfortunately, regulators rarely feel the same sense of urgency, and are sometimes surprisingly resistant to pressure and threats from legislators to pick up the pace.

Most people, however, no doubt believe that a large, powerful and influential company can get its way if it really wants to.  The repeated frustrations facing Amazon shows that even this stereotype falls short of reality, both here and overseas.

Amazon made a big splash earlier this year when it announced “Amazon Prime Air.”  The original announcement on 60 Minutes was greeted with a certain amount of skepticism, but it soon became clear that Amazon was serious about the venture.  The initial plan, however, had to be scaled back, as the FAA made it clear that the law was still far behind the vision.  The best Amazon has been able to do in the United States to date has been to request a Section 333 Exemption Petition for small scale testing and continue with its indoor test flights.

Not to be deterred, Amazon announced that it would conduct real world delivery operations in Mumbai, India.  This metropolis of 20 million people is the home to an Amazon fulfillment center, and Amazon expected to have the service up and running by late October or early November.  According to news reports, Amazon decided to focus on India because it lacked UAS regulations, and Amazon would be largely free to experiment and operate as it wanted.

While small scale operators in India were able to fly, pardon the pun, “under the radar,” Amazon’s proposal was too big and audacious for safety regulators to ignore.  As a result, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) in India announced  that it would be formulating formal UAS rules.  They DGCA went on, however, to also announce  that given the serious safety and security issues from UAS flight, “till such regulations are issued, no non-government agency, organization, or an individual will launch a UAS in Indian civil airspace for any purpose whatsoever.”

So, it appears that Indian regulators are no different from their American counterparts.  The potential risk of a single catastrophic accident from a UAS flying over a major city and its congested airspace is too great to ignore.  As a result, Amazon Prime will have its feet planted firmly on the ground for the foreseeable future, no matter how bold its vision of the future may be.

(Originally posted October 22, 2014)

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