The US Federal Aviation Administration approved the first drone flight beyond the operator’s sight line, a major advance for retailers like Amazon.com seeking to speed up deliveries by drone.
Drone flights are currently required to remain in the operating team’s sight to spot and avoid aircraft and other obstacles.
The flight last week by the University of Alaska Fairbanks over an oil pipeline was part of a joint programme with the FAA to test “beyond visual line of sight,” or BVLOS, flights with drones automatically performing tasks that wold otherwise be done manually.
Such flights can travel further than the less than two miles for in-sight flights, depending on visibility and drone size.
Amazon, which has been using drones for UK deliveries since 2016, said in June it expected to start deliveries in the United States “in months.”
While the drone test flight did not fly over people, drone flights used for delivery would need permission to fly over populated areas.
Cathy Cahill, director of the university’s drone programme, said BVLOS flights are important for Alaska because a lack of roads in remote areas makes it difficult to complete vital missions.
The University of Alaska Fairbanks is focused on testing drone use for medical supply delivery and pipeline surveillance, Cahill said.
The joint programme advances the industry toward reliable integration of drones into airspace, FAA acting Administrator Dan Elwell said.