Amazon is seeking permission to run mystery experiments involving wireless communication

Jeff Bezos Sebastian Thrun Sun ValleyGetty / Drew AngererAmazon CEO Jeff Bezos

Amazon is preparing to test experimental wireless communications technology, including mobile devices and fixed base stations, in rural Washington and in Seattle, the company disclosed in government filings this week.

The filings do not specify what the tests are for, but hint at a new type of technology or wireless service, noting that the project involves prototpes designed to support “innovative communications capabilities and functionalities.”

Even more intriguing, Amazon listed Neil Woodward as the main contact on the filings. Woodward, a retired NASA astronaut who joined Amazon in 2008, is now a senior manager for Prime Air, the team in charge of Amazon’s drone delivery effort, according to his LinkedIn page.

That suggests that the tests could involve some kind of communications system to control Amazon’s delivery drones. But the details in the filings could also point to a wireless service designed to work with mobile handsets, such as Amazon’s Kindle tablets, or perhaps the Echo home speakers that Amazon has begun selling.

All over the spectrum

The tests will first take place indoors at Amazon’s Seattle headquarters, but will expand outdoors around the company’s customer service facility in Kennewick, a rural area 220 miles away from Seattle.

According to the documents, which Amazon filed with the Federal Communications Commission on Wednesday, the tests will involve “low power, temporary fixed base transmitters and associated mobile units indoors at and near its company facilities in Seattle, Washington.”

Each location will feature 3 fixed transmitters and 10 mobile units, Amazon noted.

The testing will be limited to Amazon employees and Amazon said it would retrieve and recover all devices that don’t meet FCC regulations after the test.

“The temporary base stations will typically transmit on average for only 5 minutes per hour per day per week on any specific channel or band,” Amazon noted.

The tests, which Amazon hopes will be done under the FCC’s experimental authority, will use a variety of frequencies, listed in the chart below:

Amazon declined to comment for this story.

Customer service

Amazon has a customer service facility in Kennewick, located in the back of a retail mall featuring a Hobby Lobby store and a Wok King restaurant.

AmazonGoogle Street ViewAmazon’s Kennewick, WA facility

The area for the outdoor tests in Kennewick will be limited to a 5 kilometer radius of any temporary fixed site, the company said in one of the filings. “Amazon has specified a 120 km radius of operation for the location at Kennewick only to provide it flexibility to select a location within that area to meet its criteria for adequately evaluating the functionality and reliability of prototype equipment.”

Internet companies such as Google and Facebook have begun conducting numerous wireless tests under the FCC’s experimental authority in recent years, as the companies have expanded into fields such as self driving cars and internet-beaming drones and balloons. While Amazon has begun selling more hardware in recent years, the company has not been as active as its peers when it comes to testing wireless communications technologies.

But Amazon is getting serious about creating drones capable of delivering packages to customers. Developing a system to communicate with and control the drones could be key. US regulators require drone tests to be operated by a certified pilot with a visual line of sight to the remotely operated vehicles.

The company has drone development centres in a number of countries, including the US, the UK, Austria, and Israel. Just last month, it made its first official delivery by drone in a rural area in England.

Amazon won the approval to test delivery drones in the US in March 2015. By August 2015, Amazon was reported to be running a drone testing site in Snoqualmie, a rural area 30-minutes away from Seattle, according to Geekwire.

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