It was illegal for Amazon to shoot that drone video in the U.S., so it went abroad

December 10, 2013

(Amazon.com)

When Jeffrey P. Bezos revealed to CBS's Charlie Rose that Amazon.com was planning for a fleet of whirring octocopters to deliver everyone's next iPhone case, the video that went along with it showed a prototype drone rising lazily off the ground and floating across green, open fields to reach its destination. It could've been anywhere — sunny California, maybe, or somewhere near Seattle. But it was actually neither of those places. Turns out it wasn't even in the United States.

Spokespeople for Amazon and the Federal Aviation Administration have confirmed that the company chose an international location for its concept video after FAA restrictions prevented them from shooting here. Exactly which lucky country got a cameo is still a mystery; neither official would talk specifics.

Drone policy watchers say Canada would have been an attractive option — it's not far from Amazon's home base, Seattle, and the rules governing unmanned aircraft are a little more relaxed there.

"I can also imagine maybe a small eastern European country being a good candidate," says Timothy Reuter, who heads the DC Area Drone User Group.

The fact that Amazon had to leave the country to make the video underscores how slowly U.S. officials have embraced the policy challenge. It also offers a concrete example of what the country stands to lose, as the market for civil drone use picks up globally. They've been criticized before for lagging on their new set of drone guidelines; it won't be until 2015 that the FAA finally integrates small drones into the national airspace, with full-on commercial drones getting addressed sometime later, according to a governmental plan released last month. The current regime makes exceptions for hobbyists and those who receive a special certificate from the FAA.

Sometime before the end of the month, the agency is expected to announce a number of test sites it'll use to assess the impact of unmanned vehicles on safety and security.

Disclosure: Jeffrey P. Bezos, founder and chief executive of Amazon.com, owns The Washington Post.

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post.
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Brian Fung | December 10, 2013