Gur Kimchi, co-founder and vice president of Amazon Prime Air, gave a keynote presentation in early-May at Xponential 2016, the largest trade show for the unmanned systems and robotics industry. Kimchi presented a case for a “federated” air traffic control system that would allow drones to communicate with one another, air traffic control towers, and manned aircrafts.
Amazon is also proposing to the FAA and regulators a restricted airspace between 200 and 400 feet that would serve as a “high-speed transit zone” for commercial drones. While the FAA currently allows limited commercial operations through a Section 333 exemption, it has not yet released regulations to allow for drones to carry payloads.
Those in the drone industry and advocates of the technology say the influence of Amazon could ultimately open the door to mass scale drone deliveries. The New York Times reported that Amazon has significantly increased its pressure on regulators in Washington, doubling its expenditures on lobbying between 2014 and 2015 to $9.4 million. “Amazon is disrupting huge industries; retail was a start, then the enterprise market with its cloud platform and now transportation logistics,” said Colin Sebastian, a senior analyst at Robert W. Baird in the article. “This is Jeff Bezos’s playbook, and achieving it by influencing legislation would be consistent with that plan.”
Other companies have drone programs in the pipeline. Forbes reported that UPS is working with Zipline to establish a network of autonomous drones to deliver blood in Rwanda. Wired reported that DHL also has a drone prototype that can make deliveries faster than a car.
Kimchi said as the technology proliferates in the next year or two the airspace could soon become congested. He revealed at the conference that Amazon is floating its proposals to a number of aviation stakeholders such as the FAA, NASA, the Air Line Pilots Association, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association and Helicopter Association International.
Kimchi said the United States needs to open the skies to commercial drone deliveries now lest it falls behind as a global leader. Because it has yet to obtain approval from the FAA, Amazon has been testing its drones in England and The Netherlands. “We need to be ready. This is not a technology problem, but an industry-getting-together problem. We have to do it now,” Kimchi said.