Drones are coming. Commercial drones, that is. In so many years, the sky will be filled with small, unmanned aircraft delivering you pizzas. And new iPhones.
That's been Amazon's vision for years now, as the company tries to get its Prime Air drone delivery service off the ground. Standing in its way are longstanding rules and regulations concerning commercial aircraft. The Federal Aviation Administration, NTSB, and other regulatory agencies have been moving to catch up with the explosion of drones, but nothing has happened as of yet that would facilitate a safe and legal drone delivery system.
In Amazon's mind, what is needed is a sort of air traffic control system for drones.
"The majority of airspace integration efforts over the past decade have focused on integrating medium or large unmanned aircraft systems into non-segregated civil airspace, i.e. airspace above 500 feet where most civil and military aviation activities occur, says Amazon in a recent proposal. "However, given the rapidly growing small unmanned aircraft industry, Amazon believes the safest and most efficient environment for sUAS operations – from basic recreational users to sophisticated beyond-line-of-sight fleets – is in segregated civil airspace below 500 feet."
Amazon has taken its new drone proposal to NASA's UTM 2015 convention. In a paper titled Revising the Airspace Model for the Safe Integration of Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems, the company lays out its strategy for building a sort of drone superhighway, between 200 and 400 feet off the ground.
Amazon proposes a "high-speed transit" space between 200 and 400 feet. Below that, a "low-speed localized traffic" area – that's for your drone hobbyists.
There would also be a 100ft-wide buffer zone atop the high-speed lane, in order to help prevent drones from interacting with larger aircraft.
Any drone that would fly in the high-speed lane must sport advanced GPS systems, online flight planning, the ability to communicate with other drones, and sensors to help avoid collisions.
"Highly-equipped sUAS will be capable of navigation, merging and sequencing, communication, maintaining safe self-separation, collision avoidance and deconfliction in congested airspace without operator assistance. Again, while many of the traditional ANSP responsibilities may be delegated, the underlying authority will still reside with the ANSP and/or the civil aviation authority. To help move this model forward, Amazon will collaborate with civil aviation authorities like the Federal Aviation Administration, as well as NASA and others, on research related to delegation and federation," says Amazon.
This proposal is similar to what NASA and even other companies like Google have in mind.