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Make Me Smart with Kai and Molly

Episode 122: Space — the final business frontier

Jul 16, 2019

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Amazon’s vision of a drone highway in the sky

Jul 29, 2015
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What will Amazon’s drone highway in the sky look like? 

Probably not a drone highway. Amazon unveiled a proposal where low-level air space would be carved out for drones: 200 to 400 feet would be reserved for high-speed transit drones. Below, there would be space for low -speed local drone traffic, and above would be a no-fly buffer zone to keep drones out of manned-vehicle air space, aka flight paths.

“It’ll be far enough above that you won’t have a constant stream of noise or a visual blight, but low enough that it would not worry pilots,” says Ryan Calo, professor of law at the University of Washington. 

Amazon shipping drones would share the space with drones doing other tasks like taking air samples, scanning railroad tracks and taking aerial video of a birthday party. 

Amazon’s proposal

Calo says we’ll still be able to see the sky. “I think it’s going to be sporadic. I don’t think drones are suddenly going to darken the skies,” he says.

NASA’s Safe Autonomous System Operations Project has been working with businesses like Amazon to lay the groundwork for unmanned drones to navigate the skies safely. Parimal Kopardekar manages SASOP and describes how drones would collectively consult with a cloud-based source of flight rules.

“You connect into our system and see all the constraints on flight:  geo-fencing, airports, wildfires, temporary flight restrictions,” he says. “We show all the weather-related things or community-related concerns like noise.” NASA’s system would also let users create their own trajectories.

Kopardekar says you won’t necessarily see structured lanes or corridors in the sky unless demand becomes so dense there is no other way to manage. 

“It’s not a fixed structure,” he says. “You may see a vehicle that may go over some parts of air space one day, a different airspace the next day, depending on application and demand.”

Drones will need to clear some technological hurdles before such a system can become operational. They’ll  need to be able to sense and avoid one another, buildings and things being thrown or shot at them. They will need to cope with weather or unexpected changes in airspace rules.

“That technology is underway,” says Brendan Schulman, vice president of policy and legal affairs for drone maker DJI. “But all those more sophisticated technologies are something the [Federal Aviation administration] has put off for now because they don’t quite know how to regulate that.”

In fact, the FAA’s preliminary rules on drones don’t allow for unmanned drones at all, let alone an unmanned system to manage them.

 “It would be a shame if we had to wait another 10 years” after all the technology and capacity is in place because the FAA hadn’t kept up, Schulman says.

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