Amazon and other would-be commercial drone operators have been going back and forth with the Federal Aviation Administration, trying to come to a consensus about when and where their unmanned aircraft can fly. Amazon's latest idea? Just give drones their own damn slice of the air, free of manned planes and helicopters.
The company, which has been working on drone delivery for the last couple years, presented the idea in a four-page paper published Tuesday at a conference held by NASA to discuss the future of air traffic control and airspace management.
"Amazon believes the safest and most efficient environment for [drone] operations—from basic recreational users to sophisticated beyond line of sight fleets—is in segregated civil airspace below 500 feet," the company wrote. "Amazon believes the current model of airspace management will not meet future [drone] demands, particularly highly-automated, low-altitude commercial operations."
In Amazon's perfect world, airspace between 0 and 200 feet, with the exception of areas near airports, would be drone only zones for "low-speed, localized traffic." These drones would be your standard recreational and videography drones. Between 200 and 400 feet, Amazon would like to see a "high-speed transit" space where more autonomous drones (read: Amazon delivery drones) would fly. Between 400 and 500 feet would be a no fly zone that would serve as a buffer between drones and manned aircraft.
Given how the FAA has moved on drones over the last couple years (slowly, cautiously), it seems unlikely that it will take Amazon's suggestion very seriously. But NASA has been much more open to the future potential of drones, and is working on new air traffic management systems that would incorporate drones. Perhaps that's why Amazon saw it fit to pitch its audacious plan to what is likely a more receptive audience than the FAA.
The FAA has been protective of manned aircraft, primarily for the simple reason that a drone-airplane crash could possibly result in humans dying. Most drones today are used by hobbyists, whereas planes are used to shuttle people and products around. In that sense, drones have been relegated to being a less important form of aircraft. Amazon said that idea must change as drones begin to become a more important facilitator of commerce.
"There are approximately 85,000 commercial, cargo, military, and general aviation flights every day. This number is likely to be dwarfed by low-altitude [drone] operations in the next 10 years," Amazon wrote. "A paradigm shift in airspace management and operations is necessary to safely accommodate the one-operator-to-many-vehicle model required by large-scale commercial [drone] fleets."
It's an interesting idea, sure, but it's one I wouldn't count on happening any time soon.