The first wave of long-range commercial drones should be allowed to operate in a narrow, low-altitude band and must agree to be tracked, according to Amazon.com’s vision of the future.
While current US government regulations allow only limited unmanned flights, Amazon is creating a blueprint for an air-traffic system and the necessary technology is rapidly maturing, said Gur Kimchi, a vice president who heads the company’s drone-delivery division.
‘‘It’s completely doable,’’ Kimchi said, laying out for the first time how the company envisions an orderly system guiding small, unmanned delivery aircraft. He unveiled the company’s view at a conference Tuesday sponsored by NASA at its Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif.
Having a traffic cop in the skies is essential before the world’s largest online retailer can revolutionize how packages are delivered using drones. The stakes are enormous for Amazon, Google Inc., and scores of other companies that want to develop drone commerce, from power-line inspections to farm surveys.
A team at NASA’s facility adjacent to Silicon Valley is leading the government’s efforts to create a drone air-traffic system, dubbed Unmanned Aerial System Traffic Management.
More than 100 companies have expressed interest in participating in NASA’s effort, and at least 14 have signed agreements to work with the agency, including giants of technology and communications, such as Google, Amazon, Verizon Communications Inc., and Harris Corp.
Amazon says the only way drones can dart across the skies without hitting each other or threatening traditional aircraft is to require that the equivalent of flight plans be filed and to have drones communicate their positions to a computer system available to all operators.
Key to creating a safe system, at least initially, is keeping unmanned vehicles away from traditional planes and helicopters, Kimchi said.
The Federal Aviation Administration in February unveiled its first step in drafting commercial drone rules. Once finalized, they would allow commercial flights only during the day and within sight of the drone’s operator on the ground.
To operate the unmanned flights beyond the FAA’s line-of-sight requirements, Kimchi outlined the steps that would be needed.
Drones should remain within 400 feet of the ground, which keeps them away from traditional aircraft that mostly fly higher than 500 feet. In rare cases when aircraft would enter drone flyways, such as an emergency medical helicopter, drones would automatically give way, he said.
High-speed drones would stay between 200 feet and 400 feet, while local traffic and slower drones would fly below them, he said.
A database of known flight hazards, such as towers, buildings, and high ground, would be developed and shared with drone users, which would automatically steer vehicles away from danger.
In order to avoid mid-air collisions, the vehicles must be capable of communicating with each other, he said. Existing vehicle-to-vehicle technologies that are being developed for autos should be adapted for drones, he said.
Finally, drones capable of flying long distances must also be equipped with sensors that can detect birds and other uncharted hazards, he said. That would replicate the current system of pilots keeping watch in the cockpit, Kimchi said.
Like Google, Amazon believes there doesn’t need to be a single air-traffic operator for drones. So long as the data showing where drones are flying is sent to the central computer system, any company should be allowed to participate, he said.