The higher the drones fly, the greater the ability they would need for communicating with each other and with manned aircraft above. They'd also have to be equipped with collision-avoidance systems.
Amazon doesn't envision drones being managed the way air traffic controllers manage airplanes, because there will be far more drones than manned aircraft. Instead, several highly capable drones that are able to self-navigate and self-separate would be supervised by one controller.
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"A paradigm shift in airspace management and operations is necessary to safely accommodate the one-operator-to-many-vehicle model required by large-scale commercial fleets," Amazon Prime Air project VP Gur Kimchi said.
Why NASA? "The first 'A' in NASA is aeronautics," said Parimal Kopardekar, who runs the Safe Autonomous System Operations Project for the agency. "NASA has been doing research on air traffic management for the last two decades."
All that said, it's the FAA that would ultimately regulate the industry. Kopardekar said the air traffic management system NASA envisions would create a safe environment. "Another way to look at this," he said, "is if you have self-driving cars, you still need lanes and stop signs to keep things flowing efficiently as well as (safely)."
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Jesse Kallman of Airware, which is building an operating system that can be used by different commercial drone companies, said the industry needs a framework for air traffic.
"What are we going to do when Amazon wants to deliver a package, when Verizon wants to inspect their network or inspect a tower, or first responders want to get into an area and deliver a defibrillator or something?" asked Kallman, whose company has raised more than $40 million from Andreessen Horowitz, Kleiner Perkins, Google Ventures, GE Ventures and others.
"Even something as mundane as what Amazon is trying to do with drones delivering packages to people, the last thing you want is these devices falling out of the sky on someone's head," said Cisco's Antunes. "So all of this is going to require connectivity, networking, security, and in essence it's going to require technologies that enable these devices to talk to each other."
But the industry has to overcome the idea of "drones gone wild," and find a way to allow private citizens to own and fly the unmanned craft without creating the kind of situation firefighters have seen in California.
"A lot of people are buying these small, low-cost consumer systems off the Internet and they don't really understand the aviation culture," Kallman said. "They don't really understand some of the challenges that they could actually pose to manned aircraft."