Sunday, March 18, 2012

Amazon Proposes New Drone Airspace

Amazon GPS drone delivery

More than a year ago, Amazon sparked the imaginations of thousands of consumers and with the announcement that it was working on drone delivery send out packages within 30 minutes of ordering. Called Amazon Prime Air, this program was extremely controversial and the Federal Aviation Administration, which released its official rules for drones, basically said no.

Well, it looks like Amazon isn’t giving up on the idea of sending thousands of drones whizzing over American cities and catering to the worst impulse buyers with almost immediate delivery. On Tuesday, VP of Amazon Air Gur Kimchi, spoke at the NASA Ames Research Center and proposed the FAA set aside a specific airspace for drones to operate safely in cities, suburbs and around the world.

According to the Washington Post, Kimchi called for airspace less than 200 feet to be reserved for low-speed localized drones doing local deliveries, shooting video or conducting inspections. The airspace between 200 and 400 feet would be reserved for high tech drones with higher collision avoidance technologies to travel at much faster speeds. These drones would be mostly traveling autonomously over long distances, almost like a drone highway. There would be a 100 foot buffer between these high-tech drones and regular aircraft, which operate at above 600 feet generally.

Washington Post shared the below graphic, courtesy of Amazon, showing the air zones:

drone airspace amazon

According to the Post, Amazon outlined five capabilities that drones flying in the ‘high speed corridor’ would have to have for safety reasons:

  • Sophisticated GPS Tracking to pinpoint location in realtime in relation to other drones and the landscape.
  • Reliable Internet connection to maintain real-time GPS data and an awareness of obstacles and other drones.
  • Online flight planing that would allow drones to communicate with each other and also avoid stationary objects like buildings.
  • Sensor-based sense-and-avoid equipment to avoid crashing into other drones, birds, buildings, people, trees… you get the idea.

There isn’t much word on how the FAA is taking the proposal, but if it was to go through it would leave one huge gaping problem: hobby drone enthusiasts would lose their airspace. Under current rules, drone enthusiasts are able to flay their aircraft up to 400 feet high within line of sight, provided the area is not restricted. If the new proposal was accepted, hobbyists would be relegated to designated airfields unless they equipped their drones with the necessary technology to legally fly in those zones.

This proposal is quite a step up from the current FAA rules, but I can’t say I’m surprised as Amazon has been one of the loudest voices in trying to make drone use more accepted and legal, and has been testing drones in the US and abroad for quite some time now. Personally, I think it might just be a matter of time until it becomes normal to see little mechanical UAVs zipping all over the place. Your move, FAA.

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