Do Amazon Drones Pose a Threat to Commercial Aircraft?

These drones will be taking off from an Amazon warehouse near you and flying at just below pattern height for any small aircraft! (Photo: Amazon)

The following is an opinion piece from editor Roberto Leiro on Amazon’s use of drones and its future impact on air control safety.

I use Amazon all the time. After all, I lead an esoteric life of hermitage, I hate brick and mortar stores, I order incredibly hard-to-find books on Russian aviation and local traffic terrifies me.

Enter Amazon Prime Air. It’s like Prime Now, except without the sketchy delivery driver and tipping. In other words, if you need something fast, it will get there.

But just how will this work?

Well, that’s the thing. Amazon has developed a “family” of drones that will carry parcels at least fifteen miles away from fulfillment centers.

They can take off and land vertically and then traverse at great speed like a normal aircraft. They carry parcels in an internal cargo bay and land at spots where the smiling ‘a’ has been placed by a happy recipient.

Naturally, the autonomous aircraft has software to ascertain whether or not the landing zone selected is appropriate for the aircraft and there will clearly be some way to ask them to select an alternate should their first choice fail.

On the surface, this is great.

Except what altitude do these bad boys fly at? 400 feet! Is this 400 feet above ground level or 400 feet above sea level? This matters for reasons beyond my pedantry–I fly choppers.

I do most of my flying to and from Boeing field, which coordinates extensive traffic from Boeing test flights and deliveries, UPS and other cargo aircraft (including ones to fulfill Amazon orders), private aircraft, fixed wing flight schools and helicopter flight schools.

There are three VFR arrival and departure methods to and from Boeing field, only one of which is of any use for training–Rainier.

What does this have to do with Amazon? Well, the Rainier departure/arrival to Boeing field takes us over Longacres and Kent.

Where is Amazon’s largest fulfillment center in King County? Kent!

Where do I suspect drones will be coming out to deliver packages to most of the greater Seattle Metroplex? You guessed it, Kent!

I recognize that fifteen miles will not get them to Edmunds, but it will get them to all of Seattle, Redmond, Kirkland, and even a good deal of Bothell. So, from their end, using Kent as a launching point for their drones makes sense.

In a way, Kent is not the worst place for droning. There is no way the FAA will ever let drones fly into the extremely fortified class B airspace of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. However, that does mean a lot of drones will likely be skirting its borders and flying under its shelf…which is exactly what we non-instrument pilots routinely do.

Even better, once we are out of Boeing Field’s class D airspace that extends from 2500ft to the surface, we’re in class G airspace– which extends from 700ft to the surface.

Helicopters and fixed wing aircraft sharing airspace is inherently risky. Some of our maneuvers take us up to fixed wing height. We share the same traffic patterns for towerless airports nearby Boeing Field. Helicopters are also quite hard to see–we usually look a bit like a spot on the windscreen from a distance.

Currently, we’re already scared to death of people playing with quadrocopters and the lot of personal human-controlled drone aircraft. Drone pilots may have no idea what they are doing but they can usually see their tiny little spy machines taking photos of the cute neighbor doing yard work– which means that they tend to fly a lot lower.

If, when Amazon says their drones fly at 400 feet, they mean above ground level–that’s a bit of a problem. There are some spaces around the greater King County area where the prescribed altitude for helicopters would only give us 81 foot clearance of these tiny creatures assuming our altimeters are calibrated perfectly (and are not a million years old and riddled with error).

Allow me to diverge for a moment to put our scheduled transport pilot friends at ease.

Amazon Prime Air is less likely to be a threat to scheduled air travel. My suspicion is backed up because to enter this Class B airspace – one must be in possession of expensive equipment beyond a two-way radio and a regular mode C transponder. By its very nature, an autonomous vehicle cannot communicate in real time with approach, departure, or tower controllers.

So, do not expect your scheduled service to get brutally interrupted by someone’s sneakers. The same, I suspect will hold true for all airports that fall within the purview of any sort of communication with air traffic control to enter.