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Intelligent Machines

Amazon Lays Out Its Vision for a Sky Thronging with Delivery Drones

To get its drone delivery service off the ground, Amazon must convince regulators to adopt its ideas for drone traffic control.

Finding a way to safely permit operation of drones for package delivery and other commercial uses could unlock many useful services.

Online retailer Amazon has a plan to redefine the regulation of U.S. airspace.

Amazon Prime drone in the air
Amazon began testing drones to deliver small packages in 2013.

In 2013 the company revealed it was working on a plan to use drones to deliver packages to its customers—something impossible under existing laws that forbid commercial use of drones. Today an executive leading that project outlined Amazon’s plan for new rules that would allow it to add drones to its delivery workforce.

Gur Kimchi, a cofounder of the company’s drone project, sketched out a vision in which drones could operate freely below 400 feet. A “high speed transit zone” between 200 and 400 feet would be reserved for drones traveling large distances, such as from an Amazon warehouse to a customer’s home, he said. Amazon drones would only cross the space below that when they first took off and when it was time to land to drop off the small packages. Other drones might fly in that low-altitude space to perform missions such as surveying crops or power lines.

Kimchi presented Amazon’s idea at a NASA conference in Mountain View, California, focused on how to make it possible for large numbers of commercial drones to operate safely in U.S. skies. Until the technical and policy issues involved in that question are solved, Amazon’s drone plans and those of many other companies are grounded (see “Air Traffic Control for Drones”).

Kimchi didn’t offer any guidance on when or where Amazon might begin testing its delivery service with its customers. He did say that what his team had tested so far made it clear that that drone delivery has many benefits. “We think it’s going to be more economical, faster, environmentally sound, and that customers are going to like it,” said Kimchi.

Amazon’s vision for drone traffic control is one without hands-on management by centralized air-traffic controllers like those managing commercial flights. Instead, drones would have to meet certain safety standards based on what they wanted to do. And they would be required to check in with an online database that provides information on no-fly zones and permanent hazards, for example, radio masts, as well as live information such as the movements of other drones.

That system would also be able to force drones to change course or land in emergency situations, for example to allow an air rescue helicopter to pass through. Kimchi highlighted how aircraft fighting wildfires in California have sometimes been grounded due to hobbyists flying drones to snap photos of a fire. “It’s critical that we have this capability deployed,” he said.

Some drones with simple, slow and low-altitude missions, for example, surveying a farmer’s field, could survive just by using that database, and asking a human to take over in an emergency situation, said Kimchi.

Drones like Amazon’s that need to travel long distances and fly in urban areas and close to homes would need to be smarter. They would need the capability to communicate with other drones to avoid collisions and sensors to detect obstacles by themselves, said Kimchi.

An Amazon drone delivering a package in a city, for example, might take action to avoid a flock of seagulls it detected with its sensors and file a report with the online hazards database. “Now other drones can safely avoid that area,” said Kimchi.

The range of companies sponsoring the NASA event provide an indication of how many different industries see potential profits from the opening up of U.S. airspace to commercial drones. Amazon was the event’s main sponsor, with Verizon, Google, and mobile chipmaker Qualcomm also chipping in.

Google is due to present its own ideas about drone traffic control at the conference tomorrow, and some drone startups are working on their own proposals (see “What Microsoft Was for PCs, This Startup Hopes to Be for Drones”). Many are similar to Amazon’s in that they argue drones should be required to link into an online safety database but not be under direct control of a central authority.

The most influential effort is a NASA project that will build and test a series of systems for drone traffic control but is far from testing anything close to Amazon’s vision for drones flocking over urban areas. The first test taking place next month with a dozen companies participating will be focused on the safe operation of drones over unpopulated areas of farmland or water.

However, in his own talk at Tuesday’s event, the leader of that NASA program, Parimal Kopardekar, suggested that Amazon’s vision is not unrealistic at some point in the future. “My personal view is that every home will have a drone and every home will serve as an airport,” he said.

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