Traverse City Record-Eagle

Archive: Tuesday

December 10, 2013

NMC weighs in on Amazon drone plan

TRAVERSE CITY — Amazon’s idea to let self-guided drones deliver packages from warehouse to doorstep could make online retail soar someday, but its ambitious timeline may not fly.

“I just don’t see how the whole Amazon idea will work with the FAA regulations” said Tony Sauerbrey, who heads up Northwestern Michigan College’s unmanned aerial systems program. “They’re talking about these UAVs zinging off in a 10-mile range. Although technically possible, safety and regulatory reasons will prevent it for quite awhile.”

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos showed a video demonstration of a drone delivery on a recent 60 Minutes segment. He said his octocopters might look like something out of science fiction, but there’s no reason they can’t be used as delivery vehicles within four to five years.

Bezos said the drones can carry packages that weigh up to five pounds, which covers about 86 percent of the items Amazon delivers. The 10-mile range would cover a significant portion of the population in urban areas, Bezos said.

Unlike the drones used by the military, Bezos’ proposed flying machines won’t need humans to control them remotely. Amazon’s drones would receive a set of GPS coordinates.

But Sauerbrey said FAA regulations require a human to keep a UAV in complete control and within sight at all times. In point of fact, the FAA doesn’t yet allow any commercial use of drones with approval still a year or two away, Sauerbrey said.

Besides the regulatory challenges, “sense and avoid” technology must still be refined so the aircraft can sense other drones, airplanes, antennas, hills and buildings, Sauerbrey said.

Yet Sauerbrey lauded the report for providing a glimpse into drones’ enormous potential, ranging from crop surveys to collecting images of hard-to-reach places like wind turbines. There’s still a stigma to drones, with many people associating them with spy vehicles, Sauerbrey said.

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