The idea has always seemed like something out of science fiction -- and perhaps not even particularly good sci-fi at that.
Amazon (AMZN -1.57%) wants to use unmanned drones to deliver packages to people's homes. The idea seems nearly as fantastical as the company announcing plans to investigate teleportation, or a program where magical fairies conduct its deliveries.
Of course, the difference is that while it's hard to picture a sky filled with tiny airplane/helicopter-like devices delivering packages, Amazon seems dead-set on making it happen. The company, which has steadily beat back objections to its using delivery drones, explained how it would make them safe this week at the Unmanned Aerial Systems Traffic Management Convention, put on by NASA, which Amazon sponsored. The keynote address was titled "Moving Forward Safely: Amazon's Approach."
What was said
The core of the company's safety proposal calls on the government to designate special airspace between 200 or 400 feet above the ground that amounts to a fast lane for commercial drones like the ones being developed by Amazon, GeekWire reported.
The plan was presented at this week's conference by Amazon Prime Air Vice President Gur Kimchi. The Wall Street Journal [subscription required] shared details, including banning drone flights around airports and establishing a no-fly zone between 400 and 500 feet to separate aircraft with humans at the controls from those without:
Airplanes would be restricted to above 500 feet, while the area below 400 feet would be split into two sections. Drones equipped with collision-avoidance technology and reliable links to the traffic-management system would be able to fly in the high-speed zone between 200 feet and 400 feet. Other drones, including $500 consumer drones and devices being used for surveying or video, would be restricted to the "low-speed localized traffic" zone below 200 feet.
Amazon's plan makes a clear distinction between hobbyists using drones and commercial operators. It also calls for the Federal Aviation Administration to adopt standards designed to maintain order in the skies.
"Amazon believes the safest and most efficient model for sUAS (small unmanned aircraft systems) with mixed equipage and capabilities is in segregated airspace with a defined structure for operations below 500 feet," said a supporting document for Kimchi's speech, according to GeekWire.
NASA wants to provide the answer
The main issue with the widespread use of drones is keeping people on the ground safe and avoiding collisions in the air.
Parimal Kopardekar, head of NASA's drone-management project, told The Wall Street Journal [subscription required] he hopes the U.S. can adopt a system to manage drone traffic before a tragedy occurs. "It's crucial," he said. 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."
Amazon's plan calls specifically for no-fly zones around airports. NASA and Amazon differ slightly as to how they would keep drones from colliding, but they are more or less calling for the same thing.
Under NASA's plan, the flying devices would be managed and given flight paths by central computers and use onboard sensors to avoid crashing into non-drone flying items, including birds. Amazon's suggestion calls for drones equipped with collision-avoidance technology that also tie into traffic-management systems but are free to set their own flight paths.
You can't stop the future
Keeping drones from colliding seems like a solvable problem. Amazon has the money and the resolve to make that happen, because using drones would allow it to offer near-instant delivery -- at least in urban markets and locations near its regional warehouses.
While the government was right to go slowly on approving drones, it seems like some of those restrictions should be lifted to allow further safety testing. Ultimately, once Amazon can prove it can do so safely through an infrastructure that opens the sky up to any complying company, there would be no reason for drones to not be legalized for commercial use.