Drones news

Op-Ed: Amazon Prime Air – Attack of the Drones?

Op-Ed: Amazon Prime Air – Attack of the Drones?
Op-Ed: Amazon Prime Air – Attack of the Drones?. This is Amazon Prime Air
<div style="background:rgb(241, 245, 248); border:1px solid rgb(117, 162, 201); padding:13.1563px"><a href="http://airwaysnews.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/prime-air_04.jpg"><img alt="prime-air_04" src="http://airwaysnews.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/prime-air_04-1024x768.jpg" style="height:auto; margin:0px auto; width:658px" /></a> <p>This is an Amazon Prime Air delivery vehicle, it has a range of fifteen miles: (Photo Credits: Amazon)</p> </div> <p><strong>But, because it has Jeremy Clarkson as its spokesman, I don&rsquo;t care.</strong></p> <p>I use Amazon all the time. After all, I lead an esoteric life of hermitage, I hate brick and&nbsp;mortar stores, I order incredibly hard-to-find books on Russian aviation and local traffic&nbsp;terrifies me.&nbsp;Enter Amazon Prime Air. It&rsquo;s like Prime Now, except without the sketchy delivery driver<br /> and tipping. In other words, if you need something fast, it will get there.</p> <p><strong>But just how will this work?</strong></p> <p>Well, that&rsquo;s the thing. Amazon has developed a &ldquo;family&rdquo; of drones that will carry parcels&nbsp;at least fifteen miles away from fulfillment centers.</p> <div style="background:rgb(241, 245, 248); border:1px solid rgb(117, 162, 201); padding:13.1563px"><a href="http://airwaysnews.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/prime-air_03.jpg"><img alt="prime-air_03" src="http://airwaysnews.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/prime-air_03-1024x768.jpg" style="height:auto; margin:0px auto; width:658px" /></a> <p>These drones will be taking off from an Amazon warehouse near you and flying at just below pattern height for any small aircraft! (Photo Credits: Amazon)</p> </div> <p>This one is pretty cool: it can take off and land vertically and then traverse at great speed&nbsp;as if a normal aircraft. It carries its parcels in an internal cargo bay and lands at spots&nbsp;where the smiling &lsquo;a&rsquo; has been placed by a happy recipient.</p> <p>Naturally, the autonomous aircraft has software to ascertain whether or not the landing&nbsp;zone selected is appropriate for the aircraft and there will clearly be some way to ask&nbsp;them to select an alternate should their first choice fail.</p> <p>On the surface, this is great. I would kill for them to expand it to things like take away&nbsp;delivery for restaurants around the greater King County area.</p> <p>Except what altitude do these bad boys fly at? 400 feet! Is this 400 feet above ground&nbsp;level or 400 feet above sea level? This matters for reasons beyond my pedantry&ndash;I fly&nbsp;choppers.</p> <p>I do most of my flying to and from Boeing field, which coordinates extensive traffic from&nbsp;Boeing test flights and deliveries, UPS and other cargo aircraft (including ones to fulfill&nbsp;Amazon orders), private aircraft, fixed wing flight schools and helicopter flight schools.&nbsp;There are three VFR arrival and departure methods to and from Boeing field, only one&nbsp;of which is of any use for training&ndash;Rainier.</p> <p>What does this have to do with Amazon? Well, the Rainier departure/arrival to Boeing&nbsp;field takes us over Longacres and Kent.</p> <p><strong>Where is Amazon&rsquo;s largest fulfillment center in King County? Kent!</strong></p> <p>Where do I suspect drones will be coming out to deliver packages to most of the greater&nbsp;Seattle Metroplex? You guessed it, Kent!</p> <p>I recognize that fifteen miles will not get them to Edmunds, but it will get them to all of&nbsp;Seattle, Redmond, Kirkland, and even a good deal of Bothell. So, from their end, using&nbsp;Kent as a launching point for their drones makes sense.</p> <p>In a way, Kent is not the worst place for droning. There is no way the FAA will ever let&nbsp;drones fly into the extremely fortified class B airspace of Seattle-Tacoma International&nbsp;Airport. However, that does mean a lot of drones will likely be skirting its borders and<br /> flying under its shelf&hellip;which is exactly what we non-instrument pilots routinely do.</p> <p>Even better, once we are out of Boeing Field&rsquo;s class D airspace that extends from 2500ft&nbsp;to the surface, we&rsquo;re in class G airspace&ndash; which extends from 700ft to the surface.&nbsp;Longacres is the corridor that all three Seattle helicopter companies use every day for&nbsp;heading towards areas that are safe for us to train in.</p> <p>Why can&rsquo;t we go elsewhere? Well, most of the procedures for where we can train,&nbsp;practice, and fly were hammered out in meetings between the helicopter flight schools&nbsp;long ago as safety precautions. A lot of the Seattle area airspace near Boeing Field is&nbsp;taken up by fixed wing practice areas which have their own frequencies and are also&nbsp;quite crowded.</p> <p>Helicopters and fixed wing aircraft sharing airspace is inherently risky. Some of our&nbsp;maneuvers take us up to fixed wing height. We share the same traffic patterns for&nbsp;towerless airports nearby Boeing Field. Helicopters are also quite hard to see&ndash;we&nbsp;usually look a bit like a spot on the windscreen from a distance.</p> <p>Currently, we&rsquo;re already scared to death of people playing with quadrocopters and the&nbsp;lot of personal HUMAN-CONTROLLED drone aircraft. Drone pilots may have no idea&nbsp;what they are doing but they can usually see their tiny little spy machines taking photos&nbsp;of the cute neighbor doing yard work&ndash; which means that they tend to fly a lot lower.&nbsp;If, when Amazon says their drones fly at 400 feet, they mean above ground level&ndash;that&rsquo;s&nbsp;a bit of a problem. There are some spaces around the greater King County area where&nbsp;the prescribed altitude for helicopters would only give us 81 foot clearance of these tiny&nbsp;creatures assuming our altimeters are calibrated perfectly (and are not a million years<br /> old and riddled with error).</p> <p>After all, we fly at an altitude safe enough to perform an emergency landing should we&nbsp;lose power. We also fly low enough to not get hit by fixed-wing traffic that has limited&nbsp;visibility below them. It&rsquo;s a dance. Perish the thought we&rsquo;re ever flying under the clouds&nbsp;to avoid accidental instrument flight.</p> <p>I don&rsquo;t want these things being my undoing. Can you imagine what that kind of beastly&nbsp;death machine would do if it hit the tail rotor? Bad news!</p> <p>Allow me to diverge for a moment to put our scheduled transport pilot friends at ease.&nbsp;Amazon Prime Air is less likely to be a threat to scheduled air travel, at least within the &nbsp;Seattle Area or the other 36 metroplex in the U.S. that have the highest, surface,&nbsp;airspace classification afforded to them. My suspicion is backed up because to enter this&nbsp;Class B airspace &ndash; one must not only be in possession of expensive equipment beyond a&nbsp;two-way radio and a regular mode C transponder. That is to say, they need a 4096-&nbsp;encoding altimeter- they must also be cleared to enter such airspace. Not simply&nbsp;establish communication, clearance must be issued. By its very nature, an&nbsp;utonomous&nbsp;vehicle cannot communicate in real time with approach, departure, or tower controllers.&nbsp;So, do not expect your scheduled service to get brutally interrupted by someone&rsquo;s&nbsp;sneakers. The same, I suspect will hold true for all airports that fall within the purview<br /> of any sort of communication with air traffic control to enter. Now yes, there are some&nbsp;airports within the United States that have scheduled passenger services and no control&nbsp;tower. There could be an issue there, however- by the time Prime Air reaches these more&nbsp;rural points in America- I suspect these issues will be resolved.</p> <p><strong>Back to how these drones are terrifying for us chopper pilots.</strong></p> <p>So, how has Amazon decided to mitigate this risk? Well, other than an ambiguous&nbsp;statement about policy, the drones are going to be fitted with a system that allows them&nbsp;to, in the words of the immortal Clarkson &ldquo;see and avoid&rdquo;. They haven&rsquo;t told us anything&nbsp;about how that works.&nbsp;</p> <p>The policy angle is problematic at best. All policy directed at making aircraft safer from&nbsp;drones has meant pushing slower helicopters up into fixed wing airspace where they&nbsp;won&rsquo;t see us and all of us involved die. Maybe they didn&rsquo;t kill us due to lack of visibility&nbsp;alone&ndash; remember that outside of controlled airspace your list of required minimum&nbsp;equipment does not include a functional two-way radio. This means that&ndash;even if a pilot&nbsp;is doing all the calls right, all the see and avoid they possibly can&ndash;they&rsquo;re still at risk of&nbsp;getting crashed into while the nice safe low air is restricted in the name of Autonomous&nbsp;drones.</p> <p>The policy angle could work if it was to legislate stricter rules for drones. Delivery&nbsp;drones should have to fly specific routes, but be granted the freedom to fly lower. They&nbsp;are not loud. No one is really going to be a twenty first century bush ranger and start&nbsp;knocking the drones off if they fly a precious few tens of feet lower.</p> <p>Even better&ndash;if these drones are capable of seeing and avoiding, that must mean that&nbsp;they will have the functional ability to avoid permanent obstacles such as buildings and &nbsp;towers as well as temporary ones such as cranes and circus tents. Having said that,&nbsp;crossing out swathes of land on the chart as drone routes also does not seem conducive&nbsp;to aviating. The best way is to have them treated as legitimate VFR aircraft and subject&nbsp;to the same see and avoid rules.</p> <p><strong>We&rsquo;ll see.</strong></p> <p>As I said above, Clarkson said they are awesome and this man is not wrong. Having said&nbsp;that&ndash;I am also suspicious. So&hellip;</p> <p>Amazon: I am the first aviation/tech reporter to write on this topic that would be in&nbsp;danger from your amazing innovation. Show me you&rsquo;re not going to kill me. I want to be&nbsp;able to show the rest of my community of chopper nerds and hard core helicopter&nbsp;I live in King County and I have access to helicopters. Let me fly around with your drone&nbsp;and see if it avoids me first or if I am continually spooked by its presence. I would also&nbsp;like to be able to see as much of the drone&rsquo;s perspective as possible to make sure that it&rsquo;s&nbsp;not placebo effect and I am actually maneuvering to avoid the delivery vehicle.</p>