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Controlling The Crowded UAS Sky

While conducting research and doing interviews for a feature story on UAS traffic management to be published in the next UAS Magazine, it wasn't surprising to find a diversity of ideas and opinions on the subject.
By Patrick C. Miller | November 19, 2015

While conducting research and doing interviews for a feature story on UAS traffic management to be published in the next UAS Magazine, it wasn’t surprising to find a diversity of ideas and opinions on the subject.

Everyone agreed that it’s a vital part of moving UAS toward large-scale commercial operations. Just as manned aircraft needs an air traffic control system and ground-based vehicles need rules and physical structures to make driving as safe as possible, so too do drones need a traffic control system. It’s what stops them from colliding with each other, keeps them a safe distance from manned aircraft and prevents them from endangering the public.

Google and Amazon, of course, have put forth plans that accommodate what they want to do to deliver packages to their customers. Google, which said earlier this month that it plans to begin package deliveries to consumers by 2017, wants to use the cell phone network to file flight plans and provide navigation for its delivery drones.

Amazon wants a segment of airspace between 200 and 400 feet dedicated its operations. It was in December 2013 on CBS’s 60 Minutes program that Jeff Bezos predicted that Amazon’s Prime Air would be a reality by 2018 at the latest.

Fabrice Kunzi, chief technology officer for Panoptes UAV—a company developing advanced collision avoidance technology for UAS—sees problems with both approaches. He questions whether cell technology is reliable enough and safe enough to use for UAS navigation, a purpose for which it wasn’t designed. And carving up sections of airspace for specific purposes is the opposite of the UAS integration that many in the industry say they want.

Parimal Kopardekar, principal investigator of NASA’s UAS traffic management (UTM) program and manager of the agency’s Safe Autonomous System Operations Project, is the person many in the UAS industry look to for answers. He’s working with a multitude of federal agencies and more than 125 collaborators in the private sector and academia to develop a safe, reliable system.

The UAS traffic management system he envisions will be rolled out in four phases, the last of which isn’t scheduled for testing until 2019. It will be a dynamic, digital system that imposes tight controls on UAS flight operations where needed—densely populated urban areas—and more relaxed controls in rural, low-population regions.

“Onseies and twosies operations are not what we’re after,” he told UAS Magazine. “We want to accommodate large-scale operations.”

When I asked Kopardekar what he considered a realistic timetable to have a safe, reliable UAS traffic management system in place that met the needs of commercial and recreational users alike, he declined to speculate.

“Everybody wants it soon, but the idea is to do it the right way and in a systematic way to make sure it’s safe. It’s hard to give a date because it’s not completely under NASA’s control right now,” Kopardekar said.

As he further explained, the policy aspect of UAS traffic management is under the regulatory domain of Washington and the FAA. NASA is testing the prototype of the system that deals primarily with the technical aspects in collaboration with government, industry and academia.

“The onus is on powerhouses like NASA and our collaborators to demonstrate that this can be done safely,” Kopardekar said. “Until we’re able to do that and satisfy ourselves and everybody else, it will be speculation.”

While it’s possible that technology breakthroughs could speed the development of UAS traffic management, it’s less likely that the policy side will move any faster. Will we have a working UAS traffic management system by 2020? It’s too soon to say.