MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. — Amazon sparked interest in drones more than a year and a half ago when it revealed on “60 Minutes” a program to use drones to deliver packages within 30 minutes. Since then the Amazon Prime Air engineers have largely kept a low profile as they test their technology overseas.
But at a conference Tuesday attended by leading players in the burgeoning drone world, Gur Kimchi, vice president of Amazon Prime Air, shared the company’s proposal for how drones could operate safely in cities, suburbs and beyond around the world.
“Imagine the Internet without HTTP and TCP/IP,” Kimchi said. “That’s basically where we are now. So we’re putting our foot down, and we’d like everybody to feel an urgent need to come together and create these standards and adapt them.”
He spoke at the NASA Ames Research Center, which is hosting hundreds of guests for a three-day conference to discuss an air traffic management system for drones.
Amazon suggests divvying up airspace access based on a drone’s mission and capabilities. Drones would connect to an online network that manages their flights in real time to prevent any trouble. Amazon believes this approach will ensure safe and efficient drone flights.
Kimchi is calling for airspace under 200 feet to be designated for low-speed localized traffic. Drones in this space might be surveying, shooting videos or conducting inspections. Drones without the best collision-avoid technology would also be restricted to this level.
While that airspace would be like a local service road, between 200 and 400 feet would serve as a highway for drones. Most of these drones would be flying autonomously. A drone making a long commute to conduct a mapping operation or package delivery could speed along in airspace populated by drones only with the most sophisticated sense-and-avoid technologies. These drones would communicate with each other and be able to detect hazards not on the drone network, such as birds. The airspace between 400 and 500 feet would be left empty as a buffer between drones and planes.
Only drones with the best capabilities — such as technology capable of detecting and avoiding birds — would be allowed to fly in urban areas. Sense-and-avoid technology is critical as companies such as Amazon want their drones to fly autonomously, so a human won’t be present to avert a collision with a pigeon, skyscraper or helicopters.
Kimchi sketched out one potentially dangerous situation, and how a network like the one Amazon envisions would prevent a mishap: What if a homeowner happens to be having a package delivered at the same time their real estate agent had planned to shoot a sales video of the home with a drone?
“The ground control station will present an alert. Maybe — it depends on the software — it will tell the operator what they can do: land, create a geofence so you stay on this side not the other side, remain under an altitude, whatever,” Kimchi said. “They accept the alert. They do the right thing; we can complete the mission. We take off again. The alert clears; both networks notify each other, and then they can complete the real estate photography.”
Kimchi also laid out his thinking on how autonomous drones could safely fly in the same locations as helicopters. Helicopters are much more problematic than planes for drones because of low-altitude flying.
“The helicopter can talk to air traffic control, which can then maybe draw a little rectangle around where they’re flying and then say, ‘Hey this is a new no-fly zone; all drones please get away.’ Because the system is all real time, this will be sent to all drones as an alert,” Kimchi said. “Even if the pilot doesn’t do anything they still have sense-and-avoid. They’ll see the pilot from a long time away and still disperse.”
Amazon thinks drones can fly safely in urban areas, provided they have an array of cutting-edge technologies, which are still being developed and tested by Amazon and others. It believes drones flying over cities should have geospatial data to avoid known hazards such as buildings; online flight planning and management; an Internet connection; sense-and-avoid that communicates with other drones, plus sense-and-avoid that uses sensors to detect unexpected obstacles such as birds.
Delivering packages via drones could be a boon for Amazon if it cuts its shipping costs and speeds up deliveries for customers.
Amazon expects that in the next 10 years the number of drone flights under 400 feet will dwarf the roughly 85,000 commercial, military, cargo and general aviation flights that happen every day in the United States. Given this projected growth, Amazon believes responsibility for traditional air services such as navigation and air traffic control must be delegated. It imagines a civil aviation authority having underlying authority, yet much of the air navigation being handled in a distributed fashion as drone operators manage their fleets. Amazon sees such a model working provided that all parties follow the same protocols.
Its vision is more ambitious than the FAA’s proposed rules for commercial drone flight, which do not allow operation outside of a pilot’s line of sight. Those rules are expected to be finalized within a year. Now we’ll see if drone operators such as Amazon can demonstrate to the FAA and others that autonomous drones can safely fly in a range of environments. If that happens, the full potential of drones could be realized.