Amazon's Prime Air VP outlines proposed UAS airspace system

By Patrick C. Miller | May 25, 2016

Questioned about when we can trust technology that enables the safe integration of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) into the national airspace, Gur Kimchi asks people to think about whether they’ve ever been on an airliner landing in bad weather with limited visibility.

“We already trust automation every day in the world’s worst conditions,” said Kimchi, vice president of Amazon’s Prime Air UAS package delivery project. “Why don't we trust it the rest of the time?”

Speaking earlier this month at Xponential 2016 in New Orleans, he said, “We should be inspired by commercial aviation and the amazing level of safety it’s created.”

As a keynote speaker at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) annual conference and exposition, Kimchi provided a look at the approach Amazon has proposed to integrate small UAS into the national airspace below 500 feet. He described the concept as not only beneficial to Amazon, but also one that would enable the UAS industry to quickly implement an automated, integrated airspace.

After listing key UAS applications such as videography, photography, mapping and surveying, Kimchi noted, “What’s important, though, is to have a model that’s heterogeneous—it supports all these applications at once. It supports them from day one.”

Kimchi proposes overlapping traffic areas managed by what he described as “federated controllers,” a network similar to a cellular phone network.

“Your phone connects to your phone network. Your phone network talks to other phone networks connected to other phones.—they federate,” he explained. “Your drones will connect to your controller. My drones will connect to my controller. These controllers will federate. They’ll cooperate and communicate following standard protocols.”

Just as cell phones and laptops can communicate with each other almost anywhere in the world, Kimchi said a UAS traffic management system using standardized protocols could work internationally.

“Regulators will have their own high-level controllers that have visibility and oversight over the airspace that they manage,” Kimchi continued. “You don’t have to manage the airspace as the regulator; you have visibility and oversight over it. You know what’s happening at any given time. You can set controls. You can set policy.”

The UAS traffic management concept Kimchi outlined includes a buffer from 400 feet to 500 feet between manned aircraft and small UAS. An air corridor between 200 and 400 would be reserved for high-speed UAS equipped with sense-and-avoid systems, permanent Internet communications and that met industry-established standards. The airspace from ground level to 200 feet would be used by local traffic including hobbyists and commercial operators.

Kimchi described examples of a high-speed drone descending to deliver a package. Drones operating below 200 feet would be notified and cleared out of the airspace until the delivery is completed. In similar fashion, an air ambulance helicopter would receive priority clearance when landing or taking off from an urban setting.

He emphasized that at some point, the airspace would get crowded, which is why he recommends a system designed from the beginning to scale with increased UAS traffic using proven technology.

“We want to enable safe integration of the low-altitude airspace,” Kimchi said. “The concept of automated, federated traffic controls will build a scalable and robust capability. You really make it future-proof. The Internet doesn’t require a big re-plumbing—it just keeps scaling. Telephone networks keep scaling because of their architecture.”

He recommends testing the automated system in rural areas where its safety can be demonstrated.

“We don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” Kimchi said. “The only way this will work is by everybody speaking the same language. We need interoperable protocols, and they have to be global, just like your phone, just like your laptop.”


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