The first wave of long-range commercial drones should be allowed to operate in a narrow low-altitude band and must agree to be tracked, according to Amazon.com's vision of the future.
While U.S. regulations now just allow limited usage of unmanned flights, Amazon is creating a blueprint for an air-traffic system and the necessary technology is rapidly maturing, said Gur Kimchi, a vice president who heads the company's drone-delivery division.
"It's completely doable," Kimchi said, laying out for the first time how the company envisions an orderly system guiding small, unmanned delivery aircraft. He unveiled the company's view at a conference Tuesday sponsored by NASA at its Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif.
Having a traffic cop in the skies is essential before the world's largest online retailer can revolutionize how packages are delivered using drones. The stakes are enormous for Amazon, Google and scores of other companies that want to develop drone commerce, from power-line inspections to farm surveys.
A team at NASA's facility adjacent to Silicon Valley is leading the government's efforts to create a drone air-traffic system, dubbed Unmanned Aerial System Traffic Management.
More than 100 companies have expressed interest in participating in NASA's effort and at least 14 have signed agreements to work with the agency, including giants of technology and communications, such as Google, Amazon, and Verizon Communications Inc.
Amazon says the only way drones can dart across the skies without hitting each other or threatening traditional aircraft is to require that the equivalent of flight plans be filed and drones communicate their positions to a centralized computer system available to all operators.
"We can only be safe and efficient if everybody else is safe and efficient," Kimchi said.
Such requirements fly in the face of the sometimes lawless use of drones in recent years by recreational fliers that has led to growing numbers of close calls near airports and occasional injuries of bystanders.
Kimchi said that adding strict requirements for equipment and drone-operator behavior is a "complex" problem for the fledgling industry, but said that the vast majority of people would follow the rules, just as they do on roads.
Key to creating a safe system is at least initially to keep unmanned vehicles away from traditional planes and helicopters, he said.