Amazon makes its case for dedicated drone highways in the sky

Amazon's answer to safely implementing commercial drones is to allocate them dedicated airspace under 500 ft
Amazon's answer to safely implementing commercial drones is to allocate them dedicated airspace under 500 ft
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Amazon's answer to safely implementing commercial drones is to allocate them dedicated airspace under 500 ft
Amazon's answer to safely implementing commercial drones is to allocate them dedicated airspace under 500 ft

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 Because of this, it says the current approach to airspace management will quickly become outdated and ill-equipped to deal with the highly-automated nature of drone flight.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.

Source: Amazon via The Guardian

Being a glider pilot I see conflicts arising from this. Drone zones over cities are no issue, tough if these are rolled out over the whole country, there will be a risk of collision, because we glider pilots cannot keep out of the airspace below 500ft at all times by working principle of our aircraft: Outlandings can always occur. They are not overly dangerous themselves, but being hit by a drone could easily kill us. Drones MUST be equipped with mandatory anti collision systems and have sense and avoid properties, no matter what airspace they operate in. They should not be certified for operation without. Until now, the air above us was pretty much free, now we are moving towards giving it away and make it a property of commercial enterprises. That's not good. What about the birds? Why do the people who always complain about wind turbines striking birds not stand up and complain about drones? Drones are not going to 'share' an ecological niche with the birds, they're rather going to occupy it!
Right up there with mosquitoes and flies, how absurd.
Yes, current air traffic control is antiquated and ill-equipped. Drones has to be autonomous. Humans just do not have the ability to control millions of them overhead. The rules are silly. In 10 years most if not all drones will have the ability of Amazon's proposed Class I/Top Tier/Best drones. Why create rules that will be outdated in a blink? All drones should be autonomous with collision avoidance capability. Until that is possible, we buy some time to develop the system and rules. If drones operate autonomously the only 'separation' that makes sense is high and low speed 'lanes' and altitude ability (if drones eventually are allowed more airspace). Besides proximity to airports and a few recreational flyers, most airspaces up to 1000 feet and more is not being used at all. Why keep it that way? We need to adjust and not let the systems of the future be blocked in by the ways of the past. At any rate, humans need to be taken out of the equation. It will take a while to get the tech there. Right now most accidents are caused by human error, so let's remove the weak link. CURRENTLY it cannot be done, but it HAS to be done.
So, we become accustomed to larger and larger drones flying delivery packages overhead. Suddenly, several drones fly into an outdoor music concert or sporting event and deliver their packages--bombs, acid, poisons, etc.. Are you serious? Get your heads out of you know what.
Stephen N Russell
Needed since any wayward drone causes issues with firefighting alone, dont need this for Amazon delieveries alone esp to Rural venues nationwide. Must remedy
I think before long (already possible actually) you will just be able to pre-program a flight path. So all we need is a central computer to assign flight paths to intelligent drones so they won't intersect. A digital air traffic control system. It could work. Or we could assign a specific altitude for drones travelling in a certain direction (as they do in commercial airlines). Then you wouldn't have head on collisions at least. We can't ignore the enormous advantages of using the dead zone just above our heads for delivery of small packages. As for those worried about terrorists using them, history has shown that we can't stop progress because we're afraid it will get abused. It just doesn't work. The terrorists will do it anyway.