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Drones air traffic control to come up soon; will require no manual handling

NASA's drones air traffic control
NASA, along with the Federal Aviation Administration and an extensive list of industry partners are working together to design drones air-traffic-control system

Drones zipping all around — capturing photos, inspecting construction and infrastructure sites, monitoring rescue missions, etc. — they are used in situations where manned flight is considered too risky. By 2020, an estimated 7 million drones are expected to fly around capturing important data.

While the growth of drone usage can be extremely beneficial to many sectors, it has also become imperative to build a system to avoid drones crashing into each other or an aircraft.

In the recent times, drone crashing has become a frequent affair. According to the Washington Post, in the year 2015, about 20 large US Air Force drones were destroyed or sustained at least $2 million in damage in accidents. Recently, a drone crashed into a Boeing 737 jet plane coming into land at Mozambique airport. There were around 80 passengers on board. Even though the aircraft managed to land safely without causing any major injuries to the passengers, but it caused a huge damage to the aircraft. Hence, making drone air traffic management all the more necessary.

NASA, along with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and an extensive list of industry partners, has been researching the requirements needed to establish a drone traffic management system. In the coming few months, some of those ideas will be tested in the field.

However, this will not be like a usual air traffic system, handled manually at ATCs (Air Traffic Control). Instead, an electronic system will be used by drone operators to get access to constraint notifications and input flight information. These electronic systems will then be expected to follow the guidelines. Along with FAA, the system will largely be developed by companies developing drone navigation and communication software.

NASA is expected to finish the research by 2019 and by 2025 the system is likely to start functioning under the guidance of FAA. “We needed to look at things that can be done cost-effectively, can be done safely,” said Parimal Kopardekar, principal investigator at NASA for unmanned aerial systems traffic management.

This system, once developed and installed in all the drones, will unlock the true potential of networked aerial robotics, says Jonathan Evans, co-president of Skyward, a drone operations software firm that is participating in the NASA project.

The main focus of the research, along with the drone system, is to tap the ‘uncontrolled airspace’, a lower altitude that does not come under the air traffic management. Also, NASA is researching on how to integrate drones into controlled airspace alongside crewed aircraft one day.

However, it is a tough task ahead as the drone management system includes some practical challenges such as:

  • It is difficult to track the weather. Recently, in a NASA field test in Reno, Nevada, the drones were tossed over completely because of strong wind, pushing them out of their designated operating zones. Small drones are much more susceptible to weather changes because they fly low.
  • In future swarms of autonomous aircraft will be in transit or performing tasks, so data about their surroundings will be a key to traffic management. “There won’t be an operator looking through cameras or looking at anything to know the world around the drone,” said Greg McNeal, co-founder of Santa Monica company AirMap. “The drone’s going to have to know it itself.”
  • Drones aren’t currently allowed to fly beyond their operators’ sight unless they get special permission from the FAA. But NASA is already testing what drones will need if they’re allowed to fly further away.

Even though drone air traffic management will require adequate research and planned practical experimentation, but with the increasing use of drones in varied sectors will require a proper air traffic control. With the NASA’s ongoing research on the topic, the future looks bright for drone flying.

Also read: The current scenario of global drone regulations and laws

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