Amazon Principal Argues Case for 'Federated' ATC System

 - May 3, 2016, 2:08 PM
Gur Kimchi, co-founder of Amazon Prime Air, gives opening keynote address at AUVSI Xponential conference. (Photo: Bill Carey)

A principal in Amazon’s effort to deliver packages by drone argued the case for a “federated” ATC system to manage them at the robotic vehicle industry’s largest event. The concept would give a regulatory authority—the Federal Aviation Administration in the case of the U.S.—overarching control of the system.

Speaking May 3 at the Xponential 2016 conference in New Orleans, Gur Kimchi, co-founder and vice president of Amazon Prime Air, described an ATC system with “automated, federated traffic controllers” with overlapping responsibilities for managing drone traffic. “Conceptually, it’s more similar to the way your phone works,” he explained. “Your phone connects to your phone network; your phone network talks to other phone networks connecting to other phones—they federate.”

Amazon proposes that a similar relationship take place between a drone operator and a controller over the Internet. Controllers would communicate with each other in overlapping airspace using standard protocols. “Safe and fair deconfliction” would be accomplished through an automated process.

The FAA, which manages the overall ATC system, would retain ultimate authority over a drone-based air traffic management system, Kimchi suggested. “We propose that regulators will have their own high-level controllers that have visibility and oversight over the airspace they manage,” he said. “While you don’t have to manage the airspace as a regulator…you know what’s happening at any given time. You can set controls, you can set policy in real-time.”

This was not the first time Kimchi has floated the airspace management concept, but his address to the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International conference took in perhaps the largest and broadest-based industry audience. Last July, Kimchi unveiled Amazon’s “airspace design for small drone operations” at a conference that NASA Ames Research Center hosted to discuss its Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Traffic Management (UTM) project. The proposed design would create restricted airspace for drone operations below 400 feet. From 200 feet to 400 feet would be a “high-speed transit zone” for more sophisticated, commercial drones, with a low-speed zone below that for localized traffic and lesser capable vehicles. The airspace between 400 feet and 500 feet would be a no-fly zone to effectively separate manned and unmanned traffic.

At Xponential, Kimchi revealed some of the organizations Amazon has approached to promote the concept. They include the FAA, NASA, Transport Canada, the UK Civil Aviation Authority, the Air Line Pilots Association, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, Helicopter Association International and the International Air Transport Association.