At a NASA convention on UAS Air Traffic Management, Gur Kimchi, vice-president and co-founder of Amazon’s delivery-by-drone project, Prime Air, unveiled a dramatic new proposal on how to integrate high performance UASs into the airspace to which these aircraft have been restricted by the proposed Part 107. Unlike the company’s past submissions on the FAA regulatory proposals, Kimchi’s ideas about the ATC recognize the agency’s past airspace policies and its regulatory limitations. That’s a significant change in the relationship between the entrepreneur and the agency.
The above chart and a detailed technical, 4 page Amazon paper (Revising the Airspace Model for the Safe Integration of Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems). Following the FAA’s traditional division of airspace (Class A, B, C, D and E airspace), the Amazon proposal would create dedicated sections as follows:
- “Airspace below 200 feet, or the ‘Low-Speed Localized Traffic’ area, will be reserved for
- (1) terminal non-transit operations such as surveying, videography and inspection, and
- (2) operations for lesser-equipped vehicles, e.g. ones without sophisticated sense-and-avoid (SAA) technology. Those lesser-equipped vehicles will not have access to certain airspace in this zone, such as over heavily-populated areas.
- ‘High-Speed Transit’ space, between 200 and 400 feet, will be designated for well equipped vehicles as determined by the relevant performance standards and rules.
- The airspace between 400 and 500 feet will serve as a permanent ‘No Fly Zone’ in which sUAS operators will not be permitted to fly, except in emergencies. Finally, this airspace model will also encompass ‘Predefined Low Risk Locations.’
- Altitude and equipage restrictions in these locations will be established in advance by aviation authorities. These Predefined Low Risk Locations will include areas like designated Academy of Model Aeronautics airfields, where members will meet pre-established parameters for altitude and equipage.”
The airspace between 400 and 500 feet will serve as a permanent ‘No Fly Zone’ in which sUAS operators will not be permitted to fly, except in emergencies. Finally, this airspace model will also encompass ‘Predefined Low Risk Locations.’
The inclusion of an additional “No Fly Zone” will add a safety buffer, will be attractive to ALPA and others with concerns about adequate segregation and may serve to convince the FAA of the overall merits of the Amazon proposal. Further, the paper points to delegating the management of this airspace to a private entity as the means for managing it.
Kimchi added a practical, positive note,
“It’s really a call for action. This is why we are here today. This is why we are here this week. We need to come together as an industry, both public and private, NASA and Amazon, many other companies here. We have to define and adapt standards that are interoperable of how we share the airspace.”
NASA Associate Administrator Jaiwon Shin responded optimistically by saying,
“They really have done careful thinking. I think the approach or proposal is fairly reasonable, and I also thought it’s very practical. Something that we can actually work together to implement.”
“We have the largest, most complex, most diverse, the busiest and the safest air transportation system on planet Earth, but it’s not a birth right. And so the number one goal of the FAA is to do this work to protect that. These are just commercial flights above the U.S. and there are many other planes in the sky, so fitting drones in has safety implications.”
This paper will engender a lot of debate; the recreational UAS operators will likely not be receptive to the proposed exclusion although there is FAA precedent for classification of airspace based on equipage.
The FAA already has difficulty enforcing its existing regulations. The further segregation of the airspace will compound that problem. While the automation which will provide SAA for the UASs operating in that airspace, the unauthorized drones will be difficult to identify for subsequent actions. The technical resolution of this ability to detect what UAV flies into the prohibited drone zone may be needed to make this concept practical and enforceable.
This is a dramatic development and one which signifies that Amazon has decided to find win/win solutions recognizing the FAA’s limitation. It will be fascinating to watch the process of divining an air traffic control method, which can meet the needs of commercial users, allow for recreational flight and provide a high level of safety for all aviation.