DigitalGlobe helps create air traffic control for drones

by Laura Keeney for The Denver Post

New system will use satellite imagery and surveillance and Verizon's cellular network to create virtual boundaries for UAVs

Data mined from DigitalGlobe's satellite images are at the center of a system that could change how drones operate in the U.S. and globally.

The Low Altitude Traffic and Airspace Safety, or LATAS, uses Verizon's LTE cellular network, Harris' satellite-based surveillance systems and information gleaned from Westminster-based DigitalGlobe's high-resolution Earth imagery to help unmanned aerial vehicles — or UAVs, more commonly called drones — identify and avoid obstacles and safely navigate the airspace.

LATAS, developed by Raleigh, N.C.-based PrecisionHawk, recently completed initial testing and is under review by the Federal Aviation Administration and NASA.

Think of LATAS as air traffic control for flying robots, complete with social media integration — it has real-time tracking, a "geofencing" feature that won't allow drone flight in prohibited airspaces, and even offers live streaming.

"Anybody can fly a drone — maybe not today, but it's trending in that direction — and we need a technological solution to keep them from running into each other, people, bridges, buildings and even into aircraft," Shay Har-Noy, DigitalGlobe's senior director of Geospatial Big Data, said in an interview.

DigitalGlobe has undergone  a self-described "strategy shift" in recent months to target new ways to make money from its imagery.

One of these growth areas is the Geospatial Big Data program, or GBD, which is expanding as new applications are discovered. Although Har-Noy could not specify exact numbers, he said this will definitely result in job gains in Colorado.

GBD harnesses the power of DigitalGlobe's fleet of satellites, which capture photos of about 2 million square miles per day. Each image contains topographical and other information that can be used to guide LATAS.

"Instead of just these giant images of the state of Colorado, we can tell them where the trees are, where the water is, where the mountains are," Har-Noy said. "There are all these kinds of very practical concerns you can now solve."

The Consumer Electronics Association forecasts 2015 holiday sales of drones at about 700,000, and that the 2015 U.S. drone market will approach $105 million, an increase of more than 52 percent from 2014.

But regulations are not keeping up with the popularity of the unmanned aircraft among hobbyists.

Congress in 2012 told the FAA to create solid drone guidelines by Sept. 30 — a deadline that came and went without anything substantial introduced.

Current law dictates aircraft in general must fly no lower than 1,000 feet above congested population areas, and at least 500 feet above less-populated areas. And recreational drones cannot be flown above 400 feet or within 5 miles of any airport without giving air traffic control a heads-up.

The FAA has a process  that gives commercial drone operators an exemption to these rules under certain circumstances.

But just because the laws exist doesn't mean they are followed to the letter.

The feds said  on Oct. 19 that many drones will have to be registered due to the growing number of close calls with commercial aircraft and interference with law enforcement and firefighting operations.

Between June 19 and Sept. 30, unauthorized UAVs were spotted at or near Denver International Airport seven times. Some flew as high as 3,660 feet, and one was within 500 feet of an approaching aircraft.

PrecisionHawk is one of three U.S. companies working directly with the FAA under its  Pathfinder Program, announced in May, to research ways to safely expand UAV operation in the U.S.

For now, the next step for LATAS is to continue testing until it gains FAA blessing. The team has the ambitious goal to eventually develop and implement the system globally for safe, efficient operation of UAVs.

"We don't have all the answers," Har-Noy said. "We just want to have a path."

DigitalGlobe currently employs 1,256 people — about 1,200 in Colorado — and about 380 contractors across eight locations worldwide. It recently moved  into a new 482,000-square-foot Westminster headquarters.

Two hundred jobs have been eliminated throughout several areas of the company this year as it retools for financial growth.

Laura Keeney: 303-954-1337, lkeeney@denverpost.com or @LauraKeeney