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6 September 2022

Amazon wins FCC permission for drone testing in mmWave spectrum

Amazon Prime Air has become rather coy over its drone delivery program in the USA two years after first gaining approval from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to start testing in August 2020.

Now the company has received permission from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to conduct drone testing using millimeter wave spectrum over two years, with plans to start deliveries in two cities this year, followed by further assessments at three other locations in the country.

Curiously, Amazon requested that most details of its Special Temporary Authority (STA) permit be kept confidential, citing competitive concerns. But it had to make public that the spectrum would be in the range 60.86-62.78 GHz, using transmit power of 100mW, and that the tests will involve 54 sites within a 130-mile radius in the Seattle area, along with six within 130 miles of San Bernardino, California and 39 sites within a 130-mile radius of Tracy, California.

It seems that Amazon has become rather defensive as two of its biggest rivals in drone delivery, Wing (a subsidiary of Google-owner Alphabet) and United Parcel Service (UPS) have taken a lead, at least in terms of regulation. Amazon was one of the first into the field when it announced its drone delivery program in late 2013 with stated intention of being ready to start commercial services five years later. Although that deadline slipped, Amazon did develop an electric delivery drone that was demonstrated at its 2019 re:MARS AI conference, capable of carrying packages under five pounds (2.2 kilograms) to customers at a range up to 15 miles with a maximum half-hour journey time without recharge.

However, Wing was first to gain FAA approval to operate drones as an airline in April 2019, followed by UPS in October that year. This FAA airline-grade approval was necessary for operation beyond line of sight in the country and opened the door to use of cellular communications for remote command and control.

That in turn is essential to get drone delivery really off the ground because it allows the vehicle weight to be reduced, since a lot of the computation can be performed at the edge rather than on board.  But that then requires regulatory approval from the FCC.

Even so progress has been slow since then, largely because drone delivery poses logistical, regulatory and legal challenges that can be compared to autonomous driving, with a long road from basic technological capability to full blown acceptance in all circumstances. Autonomous driving will come along first in controlled environments such as campuses or bus lanes, while drone delivery likewise is being trialed in local areas. There is also a distinction between different classes of packet for delivery, since they vary enormously in weight, size and shape.

As Wing’s CEO Adam Woodworth admitted in a blog post: “Just as the ideal vehicle for carrying a ton of gravel would be a dump truck rather than a sedan, the ideal aircraft to carry a bottle of medication is not the same as the best one to deliver a gallon of milk, and neither is suited to deliver a refrigerator.”

Different classes of drone will therefore be required, although it is unlikely a large fridge will arrive that way in the near future.

The early optimism over commercialization certainly looks naïve now, and Amazon has admitted that as it realigns its strategy around the latest mmWave trials. The company more or less conceded that due diligence was not done initially, with early delivery drones being easy to deploy but lacking a sufficiently sophisticated sense-and-avoid system capable of circumventing obstacles, including other drones, on the way.

The company has now enhanced the system and is convinced it will survive vigorous testing and scrutiny in the field. There are two aspects, being able to avoid obstacles in the air with safe clearance, and landing safely with plenty of space to deposit its payload safely.

The need for 5G connectivity has also become increasingly apparent. Although there will be some limited and local applications where cellular connectivity will not be necessary, the need to reduce weight while performing visual analysis in real time will require 5G edge capabilities in most cases. Real time location and situation awareness will be almost impossible otherwise.

Drone control seems well suited to mmWave, given that range is often small with fewer objects to block or distort signals on the ground. Among carriers, Verizon is one to have trialed drone control over its 5G Ultrawideband service, operating at 28 GHz and 39 GHz.

Drone trials have also taken place in Europe, with the idea of dedicated air corridors being explored in several quarters. That allows drones to be tried without at this stage having to gain approval for wider deployment in areas where other aircraft might be encountered. Vodafone and Ericsson were among the first to test sky corridors for 5G drones successfully in November 2020 at the former’s 5G Mobility Lab in Aldenhoven, Germany.

BT then picked up the baton a month later by announcing the UK’s first commercial drone corridor, working with a consortium comprising mostly tech start-ups under Project XCelerate, a part government-backed scheme to establish a commercial drone corridor in open and unrestricted airspace to assess how safe co-existence with traditional aviation can be achieved.

There is some overlap between delivery by airborne drones and autonomous vehicles on the ground. Uber has been experimenting with both, and most recently in May 2022 veered towards the latter when it launched two robotic delivery pilot tests in Los Angeles.

Such vehicles still have to contend with traffic on the ground, but in many cities, certainly Los Angeles, that is less of an issue than the shortage of delivery drivers, as well as their cost. That has been motivating Uber and also some major fast-food brands to invest in driverless delivery, whether over the ground or through the air.