Amazon Proposes Designated Airspaces for Drone Delivery Flights

The online retailer continues to seek government permission for unmanned drone flights that would deliver packages to Amazon's customers.

Amazon drone delivery

Amazon, which has been proposing and testing the idea of using unmanned drones to deliver packages of merchandise to customers for several years, is now suggesting the use of specific sections of U.S. airspace that would allow delivery and other drone flights to be conducted.

Amazon's latest idea is to designate airspace below 200 feet for drones that do surveying, inspections or take videos, while reserving airspace between 200 to 400 feet for delivery drones that are making their ways over communities, according to a July 28 story by The Washington Post. Amazon's proposal was raised by Gur Kimchi, vice president of Amazon's Prime Air drone unit, at a conference on air management for drones that was held at NASA's Ames Research Center.

"Imagine the Internet without HTTP and TCP/IP," Kimchi said at the conference, according to The Post. "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."

Such a system would then connect drones as they are operating to an online network that would manage their flights in real time to keep them from harm's way, according to the article.

The airspace between 200 and 400 feet would allow drones to be flown autonomously, while being equipped with sophisticated sense-and-avoid technologies, according to The Post. "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."

Drones that would be flown in urban areas would only be permitted when equipped with the best avoidance technologies, Amazon proposed. Drones would have to be used along with software that can identify and work around hazards, such as buildings, wildlife and more.

Amazon has been looking at drone deliveries as a way of offering faster service to customers while also saving money over human-based delivery systems.

NASA has been working on ways to set up safe operational guidelines for unmanned drones through an automated drone-traffic management system, according to a July 28 report by The Wall Street Journal. More than 100 other companies, including Google and Verizon Communications, are also working with NASA on such a system.

Such a system is needed to prevent a drone from being involved in a tragedy in the skies, Parimal Kopardekar, head of NASA's drone-management project, told The Journal. "It's crucial," he said, because without a system, "everyone flies anywhere they want to and they end up going into no-fly zones and into firefighting efforts and near airports."

In June, a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) spokesman said the agency is working to have drone regulations in place by mid-2016. The regulations will govern drone flights and keep them safely away from commercial and private aircraft traffic as well as pedestrians and other hazards on the ground.

A wide range of businesses, from e-retailer Amazon to agricultural businesses, photographers, energy production companies, news operations and others have been clamoring for the ability to use drones for several years, but have been prevented from doing so until the FAA implements regulations to ensure their safe operation. The businesses have been arguing that, due to delays in implementing drone rules in the United States, businesses are losing billions of dollars in cost savings and new revenue.

Amazon recently criticized the previously slow pace of progress in getting drone rules in place in the United States. In March, a company spokesman told a U.S. Senate subcommittee that earlier moves by the agency to get the rules completed were taking far too long, eWEEK reported at the time. The FAA had just given Amazon permission to conduct outdoor experiments with its proposed drone-based package delivery services, but Amazon called that move too little, too late.

In comparison, Amazon has been able to get similar permissions in other countries much faster, the spokesman told the subcommittee. The testing that Amazon had asked to do in the United States and which led to the permission for outdoor experiments was actually completed previously in another country before the FAA handed down the decision, the spokesman said at the time.