Create a drone zone—a dedicated piece of airspace for drones—and separate them within that space by speed and capabilities. That’s how Amazon thinks drones can best be integrated into our busy airspace, says Gur Kimchi, vice president and cofounder of Amazon Prime Air. Kimchi laid out this proposal today at UTM 2015, a three-day convention focused on Unmanned Aerial System Traffic Management, being held at the NASA Ames Research Center this week.
Specifically, Amazon’s vision starts by blocking out airports and other areas that demand complete exclusion of drones, either permanently or temporarily. Everywhere else, Amazon is considering the airspace below 400 feet drone territory. Amazon sees 400 to 500 feet as a buffer zone, no drones or manned aircraft. The company would then like to see the FAA designate the airspace from 200 to 400 feet as a fast lane, reserved for the higher speed, longer distance drone travel, with below 200 feet for slower, more local traffic.
Amazon also thinks it makes sense to divide aircraft up according to their capabilities into four classes. At the bottom is the most basic hobbyist drone with no automatic capabilities, though the operator can receive via smart phone and act on general alerts about traffic and other hazards in the area. Operators of these drones will likely have to follow line of sight rules. Next come drones with “good” command and control capabilities—they communicate with a ground station and can act on information received from that ground station to self-separate from nearby objects. Even “better” are drones that communicate directly with the Internet and other vehicles in the sky and can automatically take evasive action. And the “best” drones can also dodge non-communicating flying objects.
“We’d like to equip every seagull in the San Francisco Bay Area (with vehicle to vehicle communications), but that isn’t going to work,” Kimchi said.
In Amazon’s vision of airspace (photo), the less well-equipped drones stay out of high risk and high speed situations; the greater the complexity of the environment, the better equipped a drone needs to be to fly there.
Making it all work, Kimchi says, will require more automation of general air traffic control, standards that make sure all drones can communicate with each other and the Internet, classes of equipment that clearly define what drones can fly where, and drones designed to be safe and secure. As all this is developed, he urged for the adoption of performance-based standards, not technology-based standards, in order to allow the technology to continue to develop unimpeded.Will this proposal get off the ground? It just might, based on the reaction of a panel of experts including representatives from the National Transportation Safety Board, the insurance industry, and law enforcement, along with two lawyers specializing in aviation law. When asked an hour or so after Kimchi’s presentation if any members of the panel had a strong objection to the plan—none did.
Tekla S. Perry is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Based in Palo Alto, Calif., she's been covering the people, companies, and technology that make Silicon Valley a special place for more than 40 years. An IEEE member, she holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from Michigan State University.