Non-collaborative flying objects: drone research zeroes in on birds
Amazon’s airborne delivery army will need to skirt all sorts of objects
Amazon’s development of packagedelivery drones is progressing to the point where the company is now thinking a lot about geese.
The e-commerce company said Thursday it has started development of an air-traffic control system to manage its fleet as the drones fly from warehouses to customers’ doors. Amazon created a new research and development team near Paris, where about a dozen software engineers and developers will build a system aimed at ensuring flying delivery vehicles don’t collide with buildings, trees, other drones or — and most unpredictable of all — birds. Or, to use aviation industry jargon, “non-collaborative flying objects.”
“Geese will never be collaborative so we have to sense and avoid those obstacles,” said Paul Misener, Amazon’s vice-president for global innovation policy and communications. “Going from a warehouse to a customer’s location, a drone has to fly in the right direction, find it, but also avoid all the things along the way.”
Amazon decided to build its own traffic-control system after concluding what’s available isn’t adequate for a large fleet of autonomous drones. The company has hired engineers with expertise in aviation as well as machine learning and artificial intelligence.
Misener said France was selected because of the availability of talented engineers interested in this area of aviation. The country has a rich history in mathematics education and companies including Facebook, Google and General Electric have also set up research facilities in Paris.
Unlike an air-traffic control system used by airlines, Misener said a program for drones is more complicated because the vehicles fly at lower heights and must account for more obstacles. The management system will integrate detailed maps — including temporary objects such as construction cranes — as well as information about bad weather conditions. Drones will be programmed with instructions on how to react if they come near — or strike — a bird.
However, similar to systems used by airlines, Amazon said the software it was developing will be loaded onto the drones themselves to allow the vehicles to communicate risks in real-time with each other, as well as a central control centre.
Misener didn’t give a timeline for when drones will be widely available for Amazon customers. He said it will depend largely on government regulations and the company’s ability to prove it’s safe.
“This is highly regulated,” he said. “We’re not going to launch this until we can demonstrate its safety.”
In the U.S., the Federal Aviation Administration released rules last year that restricts drone flights over densely populated areas.
If those rules hold, it would mean Amazon’s service would be restricted to more rural areas. Misener said regulations would likely mean some areas will get drone deliveries before others.
Amazon is developing its own air-traffic control system so its drones will be able to deal with obstacles like geese.