Europe First in Line for Amazon's Drone Superhighway

Online retail giant unveils plans for 200 foot airspace corridor for delivery drones, and Europe could be its testing ground

Swiss Post Drone
Amazon is petitioning for the use of airspace so that it can send out delivery drones (such as this Swiss Post and Swiss WorldCargo 'Matternet' drone) to make home deliveries.Pierre Albouy/Reuters

The skies above European cities could soon be filled with parcel-carrying drones if online retail giant Amazon gets its way.

At a NASA convention in California on Tuesday, Amazon laid out revolutionary plans to create a 200-foot corridor of airspace reserved exclusively for high-speed commercial drones whizzing through the clouds. The segment would sit between 200 and 400 feet above ground level, with a further 100-foot no-fly zone separating drones from civil aircraft, which can only fly above 500 feet.

Amazon has grown frustrated with strict U.S. regulations on drones, which prohibit the majority of commercial flights. The Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) proposed a new set of regulations in February, which would limit commercial drone operations to line-of-sight daytime flights. In response, Amazon has taken to testing drones for its Prime Air service, which aims at delivering packages within a 30-minute window, at a secret location in Canada.

In contrast, the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) proposed new regulations in March aimed at integrating drones into European civil airspace. EASA executive director Patrick Ky said the rules "will ensure a safe and fertile environment for this much promising industry to grow." According to Forbes, there are 2,495 sanctioned operators of drones under 150 kg in the EU, compared to just 2,342 flying in the rest of the world combined.

"Several aviation authorities in Europe are enthusiastically pursuing rules for commercial drones," says Kristen Kish, a spokesperson for Amazon Prime Air. "We appreciate the pragmatic and forward-leaning approach on this topic." She adds that the company has recently opened a Prime Air development centre in Cambridge.

Under the company's proposals, the airspace above major cities like London and Paris would be segregated in various blocks for different vehicles. From ground level to 200 feet, the airspace would be left for local, low-speed traffic, such as hobbyists and kite-flyers. The high-speed, fully-automated drones, travelling at around 60 knots (69 mph), would occupy the next 200 feet. Amazon set out five key safety measures which the machines must meet in order for the proposals to be realistic: these include sophisticated GPS tracking to give real-time information on location, communications equipment to "talk" to other drones, and a reliable wireless connection to provide them with a constant picture of their surroundings and help them avoid collisions.

Amazon Airspace
Amazon has laid out revolutionary plans to create a 200-foot corridor of airspace reserved exclusively for high-speed commercial drones whizzing through the clouds.Amazon

UK airspace is currently regulated by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), which stipulates that commercial drone operators must seek explicit permission and complete a pilot competency test before conducting operations. A CAA spokesperson told Newsweek that "dedicated corridors in urban environments are a possibility—providing the current barriers of a lack of collision avoidance systems and communications links can be overcome." Manned aircraft are not currently allowed to fly below 1,000 feet above built-up areas. However, the CAA says the idea could meet resistance in rural areas, where aircraft have to maintain 500 feet of separation in any direction and recreational pilots often occupy the airspace with model aircraft.

Concerns about safety also have the potential to hold back the drone industry. The wireless capabilities essential for drone operations also leave the devices open to malicious hackers looking to take them down or alter their path. "At the moment, drones are quite easy to bring down, hackers have shown you can bring them down relatively easily," says Alan Woodward, a cybersecurity professor at the University of Surrey. "Obviously, if something that size lands on somebody, it's going to hurt them."

Nevertheless, others say that the U.K. and Europe must take advantage of what is already a profitable industry. The U.S. Consumer Electronics Association, an umbrella group representing 2,000 technology companies including Amazon, Google and Apple, predicts that the global drone market will be worth an estimated $1 billion by 2018. Amazon plans on delivering packages weighing up to 5 lbs (2.27 kg), which constitute 80-90 percent of their deliveries, by drone.

Mirko Kovac, director of the aerial robotics laboratory at Imperial College London, says that Europe is uniquely placed ahead of the U.S. to implement drone regulation faster and get test cases rolling. "There's a good opportunity, for example in the U.K., to pioneer these type of developments of test highways, where we can try different things and see whether they're suitable and appropriate," says Kovac.

Along with Google, GoPro and 21 other members, Amazon has signed up to the Small UAV Coalition, a U.S. lobby group advocating for liberalisation of drone laws, including allowing drones to be operated beyond the line-of-sight. Michael Drobac, executive director of the Coalition, says that the U.S. is lagging behind Europe when it comes to in terms of seizing the opportunities afforded by drone technology. "I think we are going to see massive progress and already have overseas," says Drobac. "We in the U.S., we're losing in this competitive, exciting landscape and we'll continue to lose for the near term."

The European Commission is expected to present a draft law for low-risk drones by as early as December, with the aim for small businesses to be operating drones across Europe by 2016.

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