Amazon is proposing that a pristine slice of airspace above the world’s cities and suburbs should be set aside for the deployment of high-speed aerial drones capable of flying robotically with virtually no human interference.
The retail giant has taken the next step in its ambition to deliver packages via drone within 30 minutes by setting out in greater detail than ever before its vision for the future of robotic flight. It envisages that within the next 10 years hundreds of thousands of small drones – not all of them Amazon’s or devoted to delivery – will be tearing across the skies every day largely under their own automated control.
The company’s aeronautics experts propose that a 200ft slab of air – located between 200ft and 400ft from the ground – should be segregated and reserved for state-of-the-art drones equipped with sophisticated communications and sensing equipment and flying at high speeds of 60 knots or more. A further 100ft of airspace – between 400ft and 500ft – would be declared a no-fly zone to act as a buffer between the drones and current conventional aircraft such as passenger and cargo planes, thus mitigating fears about the impact on manned flight or dangers posed to people on the ground.
Amazon’s plan, unveiled on Tuesday at a Nasa UTM Convention at Nasa Ames in California, sets out an audacious model for the unleashing of robots above cities and towns across the globe. At the heart of the proposal is the idea that access to the new 200ft slice of airspace would only be granted to those drones equipped with technology that allowed them to fly safely and autonomously.
“The way we guarantee the greatest safety is by requiring that as the level of complexity of the airspace increases, so does the level of sophistication of the vehicle,” said Gur Kimchi, vice-president and co-founder of Amazon’s delivery-by-drone project, Prime Air, who addressed the Nasa meeting. “Under our proposal everybody has to be collaborative – vehicles must be able to talk to each other and avoid each other as the airspace gets denser at low altitudes.”
At present there are about 85,000 conventional flights a day in the US involving commercial, cargo, military and general aircraft. Amazon believes that within a decade that number will be dwarfed in the US and globally by unmanned drones flying at low altitudes.
In two new position papers, the online retail company lays down the architecture of a new airspace for drones. It calls for a “paradigm shift” that will allow hundreds of thousands of small unmanned aircraft to fly under their own technological steam without the current involvement of humans through air traffic control.
To realize that futuristic vision safely, Amazon sets out five capabilities that drones must meet if they are to be allowed to fly inside the new 200ft high-speed corridor. They must have:
- Sophisticated GPS tracking that allows them to pinpoint their location in real-time and in relation to all other drones around them.
- A reliable internet connection on-board that allows them to maintain real-time GPS data and awareness of other drones and obstacles.
- Online flight planning that allows them to predict and communicate their flight path.
- Communications equipment that allow them to “talk” and collaborate with other drones in the zone to ensure they avoid each other.
- Sensor-based sense-and-avoid equipment that allows the drones to bypass all other drones and obstacles such as birds, buildings or electric cables.
Under this scenario, drones would take to the skies with virtually no human interaction at all. “We aim to have high levels of safe automation so that the only time intervention is needed is in emergency situations, national security crises and the like,” Kimchi told the Guardian.
The image of the skies filling up with autonomous drones sounds like the script of a Hollywood sci-fi movie. But advances in GPS technology, sensors and internet-based communications are happening so rapidly that the concept is no longer in the realm of fantasy.
Before it is realized, however, pioneers like Amazon will have to assuage the doubts of privacy activists concerned about the impact on civil liberties and of government regulators worried about how flying robots would interact with manned aircraft. Amazon has been in a long-running tussle with the regulatory Federal Aviation Administration, which the company has accused of dragging its feet over drone innovation.
The other interested party that may take some convincing are amateur drone hobbyists and modellers. Under current rules in the US, they are allowed to fly their aircraft within line of sight up to 400ft as long as they stay away from airports and other out-of-bounds areas.
Under Amazon’s proposals, by contrast, hobbyists would only be allowed to fly within the new 200ft-400ft corridor if their vehicles were equipped with the latest hyper-sophisticated gadgetry for autonomous flight. Otherwise, they would have their activities confined to geographically demarcated airfields in relatively unpopulated areas that would be set aside specifically for the purpose.
Brendan Schulman, who has been building and flying drones as a hobbyist for 20 years and is now a senior executive at the drone manufacturer DJI, said that by far the greatest use of unmanned aerial vehicles today was by amateurs. “That’s currently by far the most common use of the technology, so before you disrupt their experience you want to think carefully about what slice of airspace would really be needed by these new technologies.”
Kimchi said that Amazon did not envisage much change in the way modelers operate under the new proposal. “They will have low-risk areas in more rural areas where they can continue to fly safely to their heart’s content.”