Much of the talk around the feasibility of Amazon's Prime Air drone delivery service is rightly centered around how the vehicles can be safely squeezed into US airspace. But under plans outlined by the company at a NASA convention today, these aerial robotic couriers could have as much to do with larger manned aircraft as a school bus does with a freight train. By setting aside a low-altitude chunk of sky and splitting it into high-speed and low-speed droneways, Amazon believes that the needs of this fast-growing industry can be accommodated without bringing all manner of things crashing to the ground.
At NASA's Ames Research Center in California this week, the space agency is playing host to some of the big players in the drone delivery game. Among the keynote speakers at the 2015 Unmanned Aircraft System Traffic Management Convention is the boss of Google's Project Wing, Dave Vos, a representative from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and Gur Kimchi, who heads up Amazon Prime Air.
Today was Kimchi's turn at the rostrum and he used the platform to paint a picture of how he sees drones of all types, not just Amazon's, taking to the skies. The vision stems from the company's belief that the 85,000 cargo, military and general aviation flights taking place everyday in the US will be massively outstripped by drone operations in the next decade. Because of this, it says the current approach to airspace management will quickly become outdated and ill-equipped to deal with the highly-automated nature of drone flight.
Its answer? Dedicating the airspace below 500 ft (152 m), where general aviation starts, entirely to drones. The space below 200 ft (61 m) would be reserved for "low-speed localized traffic." This would include things like hobbyist videos, building inspections and crop monitoring.
The space between 200 ft and 400 ft (121 m) would be where the real action starts. Dubbed the "High-Speed Transit" space, this altitude would be allocated to highly capable drones fitted with more sophisticated technologies like sense-and-avoid systems. Here, they would travel long distances autonomously, say from an Amazon warehouse to a customer's home with a package in-tow, beyond the operator's line of sight.
Under Amazon's plan, drones would have to fit a certain criteria to gain access to this business-friendly slice of air. It proposes sorting drones into four classes based on the sophistication and safety of their onboard equipment: Basic, Good, Better and Best, with only those rated Best permitted to carry out complex flights in populated environments. It proposes five necessities for such vehicles: GPS to track location in relation to hazards, online flight planning, stable internet connection, an ability to communicate positions with other drones to avoid collisions, and advanced sensors to avoid other obstacles like birds and balloons.
The airspace between 400 ft and 500 ft would be declared a permanent no-fly zone to create a buffer between drones and civil and military aviation.
Amazon has hinted at such a plan previously, but this is the first time it has revealed its vision in such detail. It intends to refine the model in collaboration with aviation authorities and others in the commercial drone industry, such as Project Wing's Dave Vos who is also due to weigh in on the topic at this week's convention.