Drone Zones Envisioned for Amazon’s Future Delivery Fleet

By Alan Levin | July 28, 2015

The first wave of long-range commercial drones should be allowed to operate in a narrow, low-altitude band and must agree to be tracked, according to Amazon.com Inc.’s vision of the future.

While U.S. government regulations now just allow limited usage of unmanned flights, Amazon is creating a blueprint for an air-traffic system and the necessary technology is rapidly maturing, said Gur Kimchi, a vice president who heads the company’s drone-delivery division.

Amazon drone. Photo:  Source Newsroom: Washington University in St. Louis
Amazon drone. Photo:
Source Newsroom: Washington University in St. Louis

“It’s completely doable,” Kimchi told Bloomberg News, laying out for the first time how the company envisions an orderly system guiding small, unmanned delivery aircraft. He is unveiling the company’s view at a conference Tuesday sponsored by NASA at its Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California.

Having a traffic cop in the skies is essential before the world’s largest online retailer can revolutionize how packages are delivered using drones. The stakes are enormous for Amazon, Google Inc. and scores of other companies that want to develop drone commerce, from power-line inspections to farm surveys.

A team at NASA’s facility adjacent to Silicon Valley is leading the government’s efforts to create a drone air-traffic system, dubbed Unmanned Aerial System Traffic Management.

More than 100 companies have expressed interest in participating in NASA’s effort and at least 14 have signed agreements to work with the agency, including giants of technology and communications, such as Google, Amazon, Verizon Communications Inc. and Harris Corp.

Drones Dart

Amazon says the only way drones can dart across the skies without hitting each other or threatening traditional aircraft is to require that the equivalent of flight plans be filed and drones communicate their positions to a centralized computer system available to all operators.

“We can only be safe and efficient if everybody else is safe and efficient,” Kimchi said.

Such requirements fly in the face of the sometimes lawless use of drones in recent years by recreational fliers that has led to growing numbers of close calls near airports and occasional injuries of bystanders.

Kimchi said that adding strict requirements for equipment and drone-operator behavior is a “complex” problem for the fledgling industry, but said that the vast majority of people would follow the rules, just as they do on roadways.

Key to creating a safe system is at least initially to keep unmanned vehicles away from traditional planes and helicopters, he said. It’s much more complicated to create a system in which drones routinely fly among other aircraft, he said.

Cautious Step

The FAA in February unveiled its first cautious step in drafting commercial drone rules. Once finalized, they would allow commercial flights only during the day and within sight of the drone’s operator on the ground, rudimentary standards that won’t allow deliveries, long-range inspections and other more complex operations. Drones aren’t permitted within 5 miles of airports.

To operate the unmanned flights beyond the FAA’s line-of- sight requirements, Kimchi outlined the steps that would be needed.

Drones should remain within 400 feet (122 meters) of the ground, which keeps them away from traditional aircraft that mostly fly higher than 500 feet. In rare cases when aircraft would enter drone flyways, such as an emergency medical helicopter, drones would automatically give way, he said.

Local Traffic

High-speed drones would stay between 200 feet and 400 feet, while local traffic and slower drones would fly below them, he said. A database of known flight hazards, such as towers, buildings and high ground, would be developed and shared with drone users, which would automatically steer vehicles away from danger.

Long-range drones must also give notice when and where they intend to fly, and they have to be reliably connected to the Internet so they can be tracked and operators can receive warnings if they are in danger, he said.

In order to avoid mid-air collisions, the vehicles must be capable of communicating with each other, he said. Existing vehicle-to-vehicle technologies being developed for autos should be adapted for drones, he said.

Finally, drones capable of flying long distances must also be equipped with sensors that can detect birds and other uncharted hazards, he said. That would replicate the current system of pilots keeping watch in the cockpit, he said.

Multiple Participants

Like Google, Amazon believes there doesn’t need to be a single air-traffic operator for drones. So long as the data showing where drones are flying is sent to the central computer system, any company should be allowed to participate, Kimchi said.

Dave Vos, who heads Google’s Project Wing division developing its own delivery system, said in an interview earlier this month that multiple companies could develop drone air- traffic systems.

Kimchi declined to set a timeline for when such a system would be ready. Much of the technology, such as drone communications via mobile phone networks, is already feasible, he said.

Amazon is advocating a tiered system that would let everybody from hobbyists to the most sophisticated operators fly.

Even the tens of thousands of drones sold in electronics and hobby shops are sophisticated enough to be allowed into busy urban areas, so long as they update their software to let their craft be tracked, stay connected to the Internet and agree to follow the rules, he said.

“We think it’s something feasible that everyone can rally around,” he said.

The best equipped drones, which Amazon intends to field for its deliveries, will be robotic vehicles capable of automatically steering clear of hazards, he said.

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