NASA building air-traffic control for low-flying drones

NASA is researching ways to give UAS operators real-time flight information to increase the safety of the national airspace.

On June 25, a hobbyist drone forced the grounding of a fixed-wing aircraft fighting the Lake Fire in the San Bernardino Mountains, according to a tweet by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. That incident, along with drones crashing into the White House grounds and near-misses with commercial aircraft have underscored the urgency for better tracking of unmanned systems as they enter the national airspace.  

To that end, NASA is developing a system that can track low-altitude drones in concert with the Federal Aviation Administration for an UAS traffic management (UTM) system.  “NASA wants to create a system that would keep track of and deliver important information to operators of [unmanned aerial systems], such as which areas they should avoid, whether any other vehicles are trying to operate in the same airspace, and what the weather will be like in a given area,” said Parimal Kopardekar, manager of NASA’s Safe Autonomous Systems Operations project.  “The NASA team is researching and testing ways to communicate this data to UAS while they’re in flight, such as dynamic geo-fences, or virtual barriers, giving UAS operators the most updated information in real-time,” NASA said. 

For the FAA, part of the difficulty in integrating unmanned aircraft into the National Airspace System – the world’s busiest yet also the safest – is the systems enabling the tracking and safe operation of manned aircraft, which operate generally between 10,000 and 35,000 feet, with unmanned aircraft that roam from 5 to 65,000 feet.

Smaller aircraft can literally fly under the radar, making detection difficult.  FAA Administrator Michael Huerta told lawmakers that the manned gyrocopter that recently landed at the White House was "’indistinguishable’ from other non-aircraft, such as a flock of birds, a kite or a balloon,” and it appeared as an “’irregular symbol’ on radar monitored by air traffic controllers.” 

While radar is traditionally used to detect aircraft, it was not designed to spot small, plastic, electric-powered drones. “Radar used to detect traditional aircraft can be modified to detect small drones, but it will also detect birds. If a drone alert is issued every time a bird flies too close to the White House, security personnel will turn off the cameras in frustration,” according to Zain Naboulsi and Phil Wheat, the creators of Drone Labs, a private drone detection company.

NASA’s UAS UTM proposal aims to serve as the aerial equivalent of ground traffic systems that consist of roads, lanes, stop signs, rules and lights for low-flying drones.  The UTM will model the air traffic management system, providing “airspace design, corridors, dynamic geo-fencing, severe weather and wind avoidance, congestion management, terrain avoidance, route planning and re-routing, separation management, sequencing and spacing, and contingency management,” according to NASA.  The UTM will not require human operators to monitor every vehicle continuously.  Rather, it will give humans the data “to make strategic decisions related to initiation, continuation and termination of airspace operations [to] ensure that only authenticated UAS operate in the airspace.” 

Additionally, NASA envisions two types of UTMs: a portable system to monitor operations that could move to various geographic locations and a persistent UTM system that would cover a particular geographic area with continuous coverage of low flying drones. 

NASA is hopeful that the UTM can be a tool that will bridge the commercial and public sector innovation gap in the vein of traffic management research.  “By working with partners who provide their own vehicles, low altitude radar, radio frequencies or cellphone towers, NASA will gain access to more technology for UTM applications to demonstrate unmanned aircraft systems can be safely operated at low altitudes,” the agency said.   

NASA is also exploring tracking low-altitude drones with cell phone towers.  While still in the initial stages of research, the system would monitor drone activity across the Verizon cellular network by picking up on sensing equipment aboard the aircraft. 

NEXT STORY: NOAA drones drop in on hurricanes

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.