Researchers pilot future of air traffic system for drones

Researchers pilot air traffic control system for drones

Airware, a startup that develops control systems for drone operators, is working with NASA on a set of prototype air traffic management systems to test the limits of using low-altitude drones in commercial airspace. A recent challenge: what technology to use to enable drones to interact with air traffic controllers.

The FAA estimates that 7,500 unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) weighing 55 pounds or less will be operating by 2018, responding to interest from agencies, agriculture and other industries in using drones for disaster relief or to inspect wildlife, crops or take data readings for infrastructure inspection.

Even with a strong air traffic control system, that will mean crowded air space.

“You will have competing interests trying to use the same space,” Jesse Kallman, head of business development and regulatory affairs at Airware, told the MIT Technology Review. “Imagine Amazon trying to deliver packages in an area that an energy company is trying to survey their power lines.”

The first prototype underway on the NASA project is an Internet-based system that would give drone operators information on oncoming obstacles, such as bad weather and physical obstructions, based on the flight plan filed.

Eventually, more sophisticated feedback systems are envisioned that could actively manage the airpsace by, for example, sending requests for groups of drones to spread out to avoid oncoming traffic.

Eventually, NASA envisions drones being able to automatically navigate away from traffic that poses a risk of collision. That will require a reliable way for drones to interact with the air traffic system, which might be best enabled by equipping drones with cellular data links, according to Airware researchers.

One challenge in developing such “sense-and-avoid” systems has been developing technology that can reliably detect the presence of other aircraft and to engineer it into a package small enough and light enough for UAVs.

Researchers at the University of Denver’s Unmanned Systems Research Institute say they may have the answer. The group has developed a phased-array radar system that weighs only 12 ounces and is small enough to fit in the palm of one’s hand.  

But despite radar’s advantage over camera and transponder based systems, “we couldn’t find anything that was designed specifically for very small vehicles,” Mark Rutherford, deputy director of the Research Institute, told GCN.

So back to the drawing board, but not for long.

Under the Airware-NASA partnership, the company said it will test a diverse set of aircraft, sensors and custom software, such as aircraft spacing, collision avoidance, 4D trajectory modeling, with the same interface and with the level of safety and reliability necessary for commercial use of unmanned aerial systems.

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