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.

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