The Federal Aviation Administration may be taking its time preparing for our drone-filled future, but Amazon is flying full-speed ahead. Gur Kimchi, the head of Amazon’s drone delivery division, unveiled a regulatory proposal Tuesday that would give the company a 200-foot swath of the sky for an armada of delivery drones. The retail behemoth also called for the creation of a computer-based method to monitor their movements.
Kimchi’s concept, which he unveiled at a conference hosted by NASA, would have Amazon’s drones flying at a low altitude, about 100 feet below the airspace normally reserved for airplanes, operated by a large, centralized computer system rather than a squadron of individual pilots.
The fleet would be, in the words of Kimchi’s proposal, “managed by exception,” meaning that computers would control everything, though it would allow human operators to take the drones out of the sky in case of emergency.
Paradigm Shift “Is Necessary”
In keeping with the rest of what Amazon does, the company’s ambitions for the scale of its drone program are vast. So vast, in fact, that it believes an entirely new framework will be required to monitor its drones.
At present, federal regulations require human air traffic controllers to monitor every flight that occurs over the United States. The amount of aircraft allowed in the sky, some 85,000 flights per day, is tethered to the number of air traffic controllers employed.
But as drone operations like Amazon’s come online, that 85,000 flight total “is likely to be dwarfed” by the number of drones Amazon and other companies intend to put in the air.
To make that work, Amazon will need a different kind of system overseeing its operations. “Amazon believes the current model of airspace management will not meet future SUAS [Small Unmanned Aerial System] demands,” its proposal reads. “A paradigm shift in airspace management and operations is necessary to safely accommodate the one-operator-to-many-vehicle model [that is] required by large-scale commercial fleets.”
The brightest prospect for a system that might make this possible is a NASA project designed to monitor drone air traffic, though it is far from being robust enough to monitor traffic of the kind that Amazon envisions.
Over the past few years, the FAA has given Amazon a long leash as it makes its way toward a regulatory framework for commercial drone operations within the United States. Earlier this year, the federal agency awarded Amazon an exception that allowed the company to begin testing drones.
But it is also not the only huge company that has its eyes on the sky. Google, which, like Amazon, was a primary sponsor of the conference where Amazon’s proposal was unveiled, is scheduled to introduce its own proposal Wednesday.