As drones become more commonplace (or, at least, conversations about them enter more of our collective brain space), the arguments around how, where and when to best use them still are being debated by international regulators, air safety officials and companies.
However, if Amazon plays its cards right, drone superhighways could be part of in our near future, and Europe seems to be positioning itself to be an early adapter of the idea.
A few weeks ago at a NASA-hosted conference, Amazon laid out its proposal for designing and managing airspace for low-altitude, small, unmanned aircraft systems. Essentially, Amazon wants to create a 200-foot corridor reserved exclusively for high-speed commercial drones. The designated area would be between 200 and 400 feet above ground, and there would be 100-foot no-fly zone separating drones from civil aircraft, which can only fly above 500 feet.
Additionally, Amazon envisions a centralized, next-generation air traffic control and command system that would collect data about each drone and share its position with other vehicles in the network, according to various reports, including this one. Under this communications system, drones would also steer themselves out of the way of other things in the sky, whether they are other drones or birds.
While regulatory agencies globally have been slowly flushing out the pros and cons of drone-flying procedures and safety issues related to them, Europe seems to be positioning itself to take advantage of what may be sprouting out of this promising market, as noted in this Newsweek article.
The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) earlier this year proposed new regulations for integrating drones into European civil airspace. "This concept is the first tangible result of the new regulatory approach in EASA, where we first listen to the users and then we draft rules proportional to the risks," said Patrick Ky, EASA executive director, in a statement. "These rules will ensure a safe and fertile environment for this much promising industry to grow."
Even with market giants like Amazon and Google putting pressure on governments' aviation organizations for a better drone-dedicated airspace model, getting a green light will remain a slow go as safety issues come under careful scrutiny.
The European Regions Airline Association (ERA), for instance, issued a press release in early August warning that drones currently pose a serious threat to European airspace. Simon McNamara, ERA's director said, "Recent near misses between RPAS [remotely piloted aircraft systems/drones] and commercial aircraft illustrate why swift action must be taken to protect Europe's passengers, crews and residents through better regulation of European airspace with regards to RPAS. Recent examples of incidents include two near misses in July – one between an RPAS and a commercial aircraft on its approach to Warsaw International Airport and another between an RPAS and an Airbus A320 on its final approach to Heathrow Airport."
"Worryingly, only some EU member states have regulations for the flying of smaller RPAS in place. With a dramatic increase in the use and commercialisation of RPAS, European aviation needs to act now to harmonise standards and rules across the region," he added.
But, if–maybe it's more a question of when than if at this point–these low-altitude drone superhighways start taking shape, you can imagine it won't be long for logistics companies catering to the electronics industry to follow suit. If Amazon clears the hurdle and can dispatch its fleet of drones to deliver books and gizmos, what's stopping companies like UPS and DHL–or the OEMs, EMS companies, distributors and suppliers they serve–from coming up a with a plan to send just-in-time components from a nearby warehouse to the final production facility? And if drones can deliver faster than trucks on a highway, how much faster will the electronics supply chain move?
It appears that the future is almost here. Are you ready for it?