During last week’s FAA Symposium in Baltimore, Amazon, Boeing, GE, and Google announced that they are ready to start working on the development of a private Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM) system for drones. Testing in conjunction with NASA is supposed to start in the next three months. The system will enable swarms of drones to fly a couple of hundred feet above the ground using cellular and web applications to avoid collisions and allow for remote tracking.

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A “totally different, new way of doing things”

Amazon, Boeing, and Google have already expressed their visions of deliveries made by drones in the future. The companies have also started testing these new technologies on small scale. However, large-scale use of drones to make deliveries will require a robust drone traffic management system, that will prevent drones from crashing into each other or, worse, manned aircraft.

The make these visions a reality, the companies have teamed up with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). During one of the presentation at the FAA Symposium, Parimal Kopardekar, NASA’s senior air-transport technologist told the audience, that the intent is to develop a “totally different, new way of doing things.”

The new drone UTM is to be developed separately from the FAA’s existing ground-based radars and human air traffic controllers but would need to be able to interact with it. Furthermore, the system would provide information to law enforcement agencies on the ground to help them identify and track drones from clueless, careless or criminal drone pilots. The drone UTM will be completely funded by the companies to help speed up the development time.

The technology to do this is basically off the shelf

In an article in the Wall Street Journal [paywall], Gur Kimchi, vice president of Amazon Prime Air said that for many of the engineering challenges, “the technology to do this is basically off the shelf,” and that it could “take a year or two” to solve the biggest challenges of creating a drone air traffic management system. Using similar technology as is used in self-driving cars, drones would be able to resolve conflicting flight paths with the help of the UTM, leaving no work to be done for human air traffic controllers.

The need for a drone UTM is rising as the number of drones is growing rapidly. Currently, more than one million drones are registered with the FAA for recreational use. A number that is expected to grow exponentially over the next few years. On the commercial side, around 70,000 have been registered by some 1,500 professional drone pilots and companies.

Currently, the FAA is not able to respond fast enough to requests from commercial drone pilots for waivers and permits. Many applications get denied and the FAA admitted that the approval process takes too long. The introduction of Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC) aims to speed up the approval process to near real-time but that system is not designed as an air traffic management system required to enable large-scale usage of drones in heavily populated, areas such as cities.

During the FAA Symposium, Jay Merkle, a senior FAA program manager and airspace planner said that the pace and scope of an Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM) system are “really not an FAA decision.” It is a decision for the drone community he told the conference and its success will “depend on how well the industry will come together.”

To keep the costs down and to simplify the UTM, the system will have a narrow geographical focus and only provide air traffic information on drones in your vicinity. James Burgess, co-lead of Project Wing, Google’s proposed customer delivery, and drone integration program told the audience that the proposed solution will “show what’s happening around you, but not what’s happening across the United States.”

DroneDJ’s take

The drone industry and technology is developing at such a rapid pace that the need for an air traffic management system becomes increasingly more urgent. The LAANC roll-out and initiatives such as DJI’s Aeroscope are important steps to bring drones into the national airspace and provide drone identification to local law enforcement, but fall short of providing the required infrastructure for a future where thousands of drones are flying around our cities, delivering packages, transporting people, monitoring crops and helping in search-and-rescue operations. For that future to become a reality, a robust Unmanned Air Traffic Management system is essential to keep both people in the air as well as on the ground safe. It is promising to see technological heavy-weights such as Amazon and Google, as well as companies like GE and Boeing, get involved in creating a drone air traffic system. A two year-time line to develop the foundation of the UTM may seem a bit aggressive. We will keep closely watch developments in this space.

What do you think about the role drones will play in our future? Let us know in the comments below.

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