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In Amazon's plan, it proposes that delivery drones fly in designated space below 500 feet.
In Amazon’s plan, delivery drones would fly in a designated space below 500 feet.

Can Amazon.com safely deliver packages via unmanned aerial vehicles? That’s the big question facing the online retailer as it embarks on an ambitious effort to create a new aerial fleet of delivery drones that can buzz packages from distribution centers to doorsteps in a matter of minutes.

Today, at the Unmanned Aerial Systems Traffic Management Convention, Amazon Prime Air Vice President and Co-founder Gur Kimchi laid out a detailed safety plan, calling on the government to designate special airspace between 200 or 400 feet that amounts to a fast lane for commercial drones like the ones being developed by Amazon.

Gur Kimchi, head of Amazon Prime Air.
Gur Kimchi, head of Amazon Prime Air.

In a document outlining the proposal, Amazon said that the airspace should be split up. Small unnamed aircraft, like the ones it would be flying, would fly between 200 feet and 400 feet, with a 100-foot buffer separating them from commercial and military flights. (See Amazon’s illustration above.)

“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,” it said.

For perspective, Seattle’s Space Needle is 605 feet tall.

In addition to a dedicated airspace, Kimchi also offered details on how the company’s drones could sense incoming obstacles and automatically adjust to avoid collisions.

“I am from Seattle, there are many seagulls,” said Kimchi, according to a report in The Verge. “Our drone would automatically get out of the way and also alert others in the area.”

Amazon acknowledges an action that requires designating a set airspace for drone use will take the cooperation of many parties, including civil aviation, the FAA and NASA.

Amazon has been working proactively with these parties to push laws through allowing it to fly small aircraft. In Tuesday’s remarks, Kimchi noted the importance of making sure that those using airspace all “need to speak the same language.”

In a recent appearance in front of Congress, Amazon pleaded with regulators to allow automated drones to operate beyond the line of sight.

“We don’t disagree that it is a more difficult use case to fly drones beyond visual line of sight. It is. It requires a higher degree of automation in vehicles, and we are working on that,” said Amazon.com’s vice president of public policy Paul Misener. “That kind of technology is being developed. Our respectful disagreement with the FAA is that we believe that that kind of operation can be considered right now on the same risk-based approach.”

The Seattle e-commerce giant, which is working on a 30-minute delivery service called Prime Air, said making these changes is imperative because it anticipates a future in which unmanned aircraft will exceed general air traffic, which today totals 85,000 flights a day.

“This number is likely to be dwarfed by low-altitude sUAS operations in the next 10 years,” it said.

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