Amazon's drone zone effort is the perfect retail domination play

Amazon tries to enlist NASA in effort to control the skies

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Amazon is exploring the use of drones for package delivery.

Credit: Slavoljub Pantelic/

Amazon has proposed to NASA that a large section of the sky be declared a drone zone, a chunk of airspace where only high-end, autonomous drones would be allowed to fly. The filing proposes specific standards for such drones, in a clever attempt to craft rules that would help Amazon dominate its retail rivals by controlling the skies.

Is it Amazon's place to be leading these FAA and NASA discussions? The nicest interpretation is that Amazon sees a true need for these kinds of changes and that it also sees a vacuum in leadership. In short, it sees that no one is stepping up — at least not the government — to make this happen, so either Amazon takes the initiative or it won't get done. I guess you could see all of this as very mature and selfless of Amazon, to devote these kinds of resources to helping the planet. Or you could take the cynical interpretation and think that the e-commerce maestro wants to help craft the rules to give itself an advantage for as many years and decades as it can. Which is more likely?

From the retail perspective, Amazon understands the huge game-changing potential of drones. First, there's delivery speed. At a certain speed, the home-court advantage of local merchants dissipates. That happens when an Amazon delivery takes no more time than the shopper would need to drive to a local retailer, complete the purchase and return home. And don’t forget that in rural communities, that ‘local store’ might be much farther away than in a suburban or city community. It’s all a shopper ROI calculation.

Another factor of speed lets an online retailer generate revenue where it wasn't practical before. For example, at Christmastime, suburban and rural Amazon orders pretty much stop late on Dec. 23 (Dec. 22 for products where overnight delivery is not cost-effective). With greater speed, though, it can process online orders early Christmas morning and make the delivery before gift-unwrapping time.

The biggest consideration with drones is competitive advantage. Only a handful of Amazon's largest rivals can even think about launching drone fleets as high-end and massive as Amazon's. Now, if Amazon has its way in establishing the rules of the sky, those competitors will have to play by Amazon's rules.

Amazon's proposal is straightforward. First off, it is now calling its drones "highly-equipped small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS)," which it defines as being "capable of navigation, merging and sequencing, communication, maintaining safe self-separation, collision avoidance and deconfliction in congested airspace without operator assistance." Secondly, it is proposing a "high-speed transit space, between 200 and 400 feet, (to) be designated for well-equipped vehicles as determined by the relevant performance standards and rules." In other words, vehicles that just so happen to coincide with what Amazon is building.

It is also proposing a lower zone for lesser aircraft: "Airspace below 200 feet, or the ‘Low-Speed Localized Traffic’ area, will be reserved for (1) terminal non-transit operations such as surveying, videography and inspection, and (2) operations for lesser-equipped vehicles, e.g. ones without sophisticated sense-and-avoid (SAA) technology. Those lesser-equipped vehicles will not have access to certain airspace in this zone, such as over heavily-populated areas."

Amazon is also suggesting that a no-fly zone be created to give commercial aircraft a buffer zone, but that Amazon's sUAS units be permitted to fly in that space when it is engaged in what Amazon would consider an "emergency." Said the proposal: "Amazon believes this segregated airspace model will enable safer overall operations by providing a framework where airspace access is tied to vehicle capability, and by buffering sUAS operations from current aviation operations."

Amazon makes a legitimate and compelling argument that this kind of new approach to controlling airspace is going to be needed in the very near future. "In the United States, for example, there are approximately 85,000 commercial, cargo, military, and general aviation flights every day. This number is likely to be dwarfed by low-altitude sUAS operations in the next 10 years," Amazon wrote. "As a result of these factors, Amazon believes the current model of airspace management will not meet future sUAS demands, particularly highly-automated, low-altitude commercial operations. A paradigm shift in airspace management and operations is necessary to safely accommodate the one-operator-to-many-vehicle model required by large-scale commercial fleets. To help move this model forward, Amazon will collaborate with civil aviation authorities like the Federal Aviation Administration, as well as NASA and others, on research related to delegation and federation."

But in making that legitimate argument, Amazon is clearly seeking an advantage. Nothing wrong with that, of course. That's what companies do. But that doesn't mean federal agencies should bow down and give the company whatever it wants.

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