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Amazon proposes a slice of the sky for commercial drones

At a conference hosted by NASA, the e-commerce company calls for a high-traffic strip of the sky to support the wider use of robotic aircraft.

Amazon, Google and others are pushing to give drones, like this Parrot device, a bigger piece of the sky. CNET

Amazon on Tuesday laid out a proposal for how to regulate commercial drones in the US, suggesting that the government set aside a 200-foot-high stretch of the sky for the devices.

The concept, presented at a NASA-hosted conference in the San Francisco Bay Area on unmanned aircraft systems, would designate the airspace at an altitude of between 200 feet and 400 feet as a high-speed transit area for commercial drones -- such as the delivery drones Amazon is developing -- with a no-fly buffer between 400 feet and 500 feet. Airplanes and helicopters would fly above 500 feet, and local, low-speed drones could fly below 200 feet.

Additionally, Amazon proposed that the drones must be tracked using centralized computer systems.

"Under our proposal everybody has to be collaborative -- vehicles must be able to talk to each other and avoid each other as the airspace gets denser at low altitudes," Gur Kimchi, head of Amazon's delivery drone program, said according to The Guardian.

The Seattle e-commerce company has become a major player in the push to create new laws for unmanned commercial aircraft so it can implement "Prime Air" -- a service it's developing to allow for quick delivery of products to customers' homes using small robotic flying machines. Many drone startups are also part of the effort to expand the use of drones in the country -- hoping to use them to survey farmland, shoot movies and inspect bridges. Google, too, is developing delivery drones.

If these companies succeed in restructuring airspace laws, it could mean people will be seeing many more drones in the sky in the months ahead and they'll have access to new types of services, such as rapid deliveries. Still, the Federal Aviation Administration is likely years away from creating any framework to allow for such broad use of commercial drones. In February, it took an important step forward by proposing requirements for drones. That proposal, however, included a restriction using drones out of a person's line of sight, meaning delivery drones remain barred under the guidelines.

Antoine Level, CEO of Squadrone System, which makes the Hexo+ drone with a built-in camera, called Amazon's proposal "smart thinking" as more people start using drones for deliveries, transportation and hobbyist activities.

"We will increasingly see more drones hanging around in everyday life as this technology evolves and becomes more ingrained in consumers' daily lives," he said.