Drones could soon be getting their own air traffic control system – and like them, it would be unmanned. A new generation of smart drones could enjoy constant internet connectivity, plan routes collaboratively, and sense and avoid any obstacles in their way.
NASA is planning an unmanned aerial systems traffic management (UTM) system that will not require humans to monitor each and every aircraft, as occurs today. Next-generation drones could be fitted with technology that allows them to hook into the cloud-based UTM system, which would provide constant communication, navigation and surveillance, directing drones and warning them of congestion or severe weather ahead.
Because traditional radar works poorly near to the ground, NASA wants the UTM system to use Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites and internet connectivity, probably via mobile phone towers, to automatically monitor and communicate with robotic aircraft. Humans would only get involved if the airspace needed to be closed for emergencies, security or a special event such as a firework display.
High-speed drone corridor
At a UTM conference this week at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, the founder of Amazon’s nascent Prime Air drone delivery service, Gur Kimchi, proposed a high-speed drone corridor stretching from 60 to 120 metres above cities. Access to the corridor would only be permitted to drones equipped with 3D maps, an internet link and the ability to reroute to avoid birds, buildings and other drones without human assistance. More basic drones, such as the vast majority of those sold to consumers today, would have to stay below 60 metres. They would also need to avoid busy areas and stay within view of their operators.
Dave Vos, the head of Google’s Project Wing division, said the technology company was working on ultra-low cost Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) transceivers. These devices periodically transmit an aircraft’s position, established by GPS, and listen for broadcasts from other aircraft. ADS-B technology is being slowly phased in for commercial aircraft.
NASA hopes to have an experimental version of its UTM system up and running this summer, controlling drone flights over unpopulated land or water. By January 2018, it expects to have internet-connected drones trialling package delivery over suburbs and rural communities. The final build, due in March 2019, will allow news-gathering and delivery drones in urban environments, beyond an operator’s line of sight and autonomously avoiding other aircraft.
That might not be fast enough to keep up with technology. Amazon anticipates that within a decade, drone operations will dwarf the estimated 85,000 conventional aircraft flights over the US every day. NASA scientist and UTM project leader Parimal Kopardekar goes further still. He says, “My belief is that every home will have a drone, and every home will serve as an airport at some point in the future.”