Amazon Delivery Drones Could Hike Flight Risks in Crowded Urban Skies

 
 
By Wayne Rash  |  Posted 2013-12-02
 
 
 

Amazon Delivery Drones Could Hike Flight Risks in Crowded Urban Skies


Flying into a big-city airport is a complex task under the best of circumstances. Pilots approaching an airfield must make a constant series of decisions.

They're glancing at an approach chart (perhaps displayed on an iPad or other tablet) that's strapped to a leg. They carry on a steady conversation with the airport's tower. At the same time they are keeping an eye on altitude, airspeed and attitude to make sure they are in the right place to keep the aircraft and passengers safe.

While all of this is going on, it's the pilot's job to look outside the cockpit to see any traffic that might get in the way. And of course the pilot is watching the runway to make sure it's clear and that the plane is on course for a safe landing. Something can go wrong during any runway approach and pilots have to be ready to respond instantly to any emergency. Sometimes when something unexpected happens suddenly the results can be serious and even fatal.

This situation is already complex enough. In fact, it's so complex that aircraft collisions occur near major airports from time to time. Sometimes those accidents happen on the ground in a wide variety of scenarios, despite the fact that there may be a control tower watching for problems. As the airspace gets more complex near busy urban airports the difficulty grows along with it.

The first time I landed at a major airport it was at Washington-Dulles International and I was flying an airplane that traveled at a leisurely 70 miles per hour. I had plenty of time to look out for hazards in the air. But these days things happen more quickly; airplanes carry more people, and adding even more craft to the airspace only increases the complexity, which certainly adds to the risk of collisions in the air and on the ground.

This is why the FAA is taking its time approving autonomous aircraft, or unmanned drones, such as those that Amazon is developing as a means of package delivery. Fortunately, for now airline traffic is safe from possible airspace incursions by such aircraft. Delivery drones such as those proposed by Amazon are a lot farther away from becoming a reality than Amazon would have you believe in its Prime Air announcement.

While it's true that the Federal Aviation Administration is working on ways to allow the use of drones, normally called Unmanned Aircraft Systems in government parlance, it's just starting to study the issue. In fact, the FAA's doesn't expect to complete a series of test ranges for civilian drones until sometime in 2017 at the earliest.

Amazon Delivery Drones Could Hike Flight Risks in Crowded Urban Skies


Once the work at the test ranges has been completed, the FAA will submit regulations to Congress for approval. How long Congressional approval will take is anybody's guess.

Clearly, Amazon's suggestion of 2015 as a start date for its drone delivery system is at best wildly optimistic. And that assumes that the FAA approves the use of drones in populated areas for package delivery. That's unlikely in the short term.

The most pressing need, and the one that the FAA is expected to address first, is the use of unmanned systems in law enforcement and public safety. The first places where drones will likely be allowed are in rural areas far from major airports. And therein rests a significant problem.

Meanwhile, any use of drones has to be approved by the FAA on a case-by-case basis. "The FAA is committed to safe, efficient and timely integration of unmanned aircraft systems into our airspace," an FAA spokesperson told eWEEK in an email.

The FAA approves UAS operations by public entities on a case-by-case basis. So far, only a single commercial UAS operator has been approved to operate, and it is in the Arctic. UAS operators must abide by local, state and federal privacy laws. Over the next several years the FAA will establish regulations and standards for the safe integration of remote piloted UAS to meet increased demand. Autonomous UAS operation is not currently allowed in the United States.

The problem is that for drone delivery to be economically feasible, it needs to take place in populated areas near Amazon's warehouses. Those locations are mostly near major airports. Operating drones near major airports is the sort of thing that keeps air traffic controllers awake at night.

Meanwhile, those drones you see that the police and news media use to search for bad guys operate as hobby devices. The operator has to be in visual contact with the drone, and it has to stay close to the ground to be used legally. Even then they can't be used in the vicinity of an airport.

So far it appears that any use by Amazon of drones to deliver packages is pure fantasy, at least in the near future. While it's theoretically possible to perform such a delivery, the regulatory and safety issues are significant. Perhaps more important, it seems unlikely that the FAA will approve anything like Amazon's plan in the near future considering that the primary uses so far are more related to law enforcement and public safety.

So what's the rationale for the Amazon drone announcement? Think about it—the announcement came on Cyber Monday—the one day when the company wants us to be thinking about—and talking about—Amazon above all else.

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