An air traffic control system for drones?

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By Greg Nichols for ZDNet.com

When you fly on a commercial airplane, you can recline into your neighbor’s knees secure in the knowledge that somewhere someone is watching a screen on which you and your airship are a little dot. That person’s job is to keep your dot away from all the other dots, and so far the system has worked miraculously well. Commercial airplane crashes are so rare these days that when they do happen they make international news.

The current air traffic control system handles about 5000 planes per hour during peak travel times. That’s a lot of dots, but it’s nothing compared to the pixelated traffic jam we’re about to face. Consider that consumer drone manufacturer DJI sells about 30,000 drones per month. With drones for delivery, emergency response, pipeline and rail inspection, and agricultural monitoring taking flight in the years ahead, there is an urgent need for another kind of air traffic control system.

“The FAA is under a lot of pressure to solve these problems and get ahead of the curve with drones,” says Tyler Collins, director of business development for PrecisionHawk Unmanned Systems Innovation, a commercial UAV company. “There’s a need to expand the current regulatory environment of what’s allowed with UAVs, and the question the FAA is working to answer now is how we ensure that we’re going to do that safely as hundreds of thousands of these things start to take flight.”

In May of this year the FAA announced the UAS Focus Area Pathfinders initiative, a partnership with industry to explore the next steps in unmanned aircraft operations. In parallel to the Pathfinders project, NASA is working to develop a viable solution to Unmanned Aerial System Traffic Management (UTM), which it hopes to complete by 2019 and which will ultimately be transferred to the FAA for operational management. PrecisionHawk has partnered with both agencies to become a developer of technology that it hopes will make its way into the nation’s first UTM system.

“We’ve done demonstrations for NASA out in California,” says Collins. “The question we’re trying to answer is how we can help integrate UAS [unmanned aerial systems] into the national airspace system safely and in a smart way.”

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In January, PrecisionHawk launched an early version of its Low Altitude Tracking and Avoidance System (LATAS). LATAS is a small box about three inches across. It weighs roughly 100 grams and is operational on network speeds as low as 2G. The device provides flight planning, tracking, and sense and avoidance to each drone that flies within the national airspace system, which means it has potential to serve as the foundation for a national UTM. It is capable of working on any UAV platform, from large military aircraft to small hobbyist quad-copters, regardless of make and model.

The company’s ultimate goal is to outfit every UAV platform, commercial or hobbyist, with the technology to send real time flight data transmission based on world-wide cellular networks and satellite communications.

LATAS

“To provide a scalable means for drones to be integrated into an overall UTM system, you need a hardware solution that will work on a platform regardless of size or weight,” says Collins. “Currently, manufacturers that are working to integrate their specific systems in a UTM are leaving out a huge network of drone users, including the hobbyist unmanned vehicles, which comprise the majority of the space.”

The men and women in the tower at your local airport can track about ten manned aircraft at a given time, a relatively small number. A drone air traffic control architecture will have to handle much greater bandwidth, so must function automatically. The cornerstone of such a system will be a platform agnostic device capable of capturing and transmitting basic flight data in a reliable way. Collins says that’s exactly what LATAS will do.

According to its website, NASA’s near-term goal for a drone air traffic control system is “the development and demonstration of the UTM to safely enable low-altitude airspace and UAS operations within five years.” PrecisionHawk is a company to watch as NASA weighs whether LATAS or its underlying technology will be part of its UTM solution.