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Amazon has a plan for thousands of drones to fill the sky

When Amazon gave 60 Minutes a sneak peek at its drone delivery plans in 2013, it was easy to imagine that it was just a publicity stunt. The announcement was the day before Cyber Monday, the unofficial start of the holiday shopping season online. And the idea of drones delivering packages seemed a bit like science fiction.

But last week came the latest sign that Amazon is deadly serious about getting into the drone delivery business. In a pair of brief white papers released at a NASA conference in Silicon Valley, Amazon laid out its vision for regulations that would govern a world where thousands — perhaps millions — of drones buzzed over American cities every day.

Ubiquitous drones will require new rules and infrastructure

Drone technology today is in a similar place to automotive technology in the early 20th century. Cars existed back then, but were still a niche technology limited to hobbyists and rich people. There were so few cars that the rules and infrastructure that support cars today — stoplights, speed limits, controlled-access freeways, parking laws, and so forth — mostly weren't needed. That changed as cars became mainstream.

Amazon thinks we're on the cusp of a similar transition with drones. The e-commerce giant believes — or hopes — that there will be exponentially more drones in the sky in a decade than there are today. And the company is advocating new rules to ensure that those drones don't crash into each other, or into conventional planes, birds, or other obstacles.

Amazon's vision for drone traffic management looks like this:

Above 500 feet is "integrated airspace," where conventional aircraft fly today. Current regulations place strict limits on flights below that. But Amazon wants to carve out a zone between 200 and 400 feet for a new class of small, autonomous, unmanned vehicles — like Amazon delivery drones.

To prevent crashes, Amazon would establish high technical standards for vehicles that use this new airspace. Autonomous drones would need a GPS and highly accurate geospatial data, a reliable internet connection, the ability to communicate wirelessly with other drones, and sensors to detect and avoid collisions with other objects in the sky.

The result could be a dramatic transformation of the space above us. Right now, people see an occasional airplane or helicopter overhead — usually thousands of feet in the air. But in the future, drones buzzing overhead could be as commonplace as cars driving on a nearby street. And Amazon hopes that many of those vehicles will be owned by Amazon and delivering packages to customers in less than an hour.