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Dodging drone traffic jams: Is integrated air traffic control finally arriving?

The skies are getting crowded, and the easy availability of unmanned aircraft systems for both commercial and recreational fliers isn't helping matters. But the technology exists to monitor and manage these machines so that the skies stay friendly. Standardized protocols might go a long way toward alleviating problems.

Fifty years ago, Mike Sanders watched with awe and anticipation as the crew of Apollo 11—Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins—splashed down in the Pacific Ocean.

Landing men on the moon and returning them safely to the earth was a seminal moment in the history of flight, and it had a profound effect on then 7-year-old Sanders, who now heads the Lone Star UAS Center of Excellence & Innovation at Texas A&M University–Corpus Christi.

Looking back, Sanders says he never expected the day to come when he would be working with NASA on anything, let alone another chapter in the history of flight. But this year, he landed in the middle of one of the most important aeronautical projects of this generation: an effort to build a safe and effective unmanned aircraft system traffic management (UTM) platform. 

In August, Texas A&M–Corpus Christi’s Lone Star UAS Center of Excellence and its partners' workers stood alongside NASA scientists and engineers as they flew 22 small physical and digital drones above and between tall buildings in five areas of Corpus Christi. The low-altitude test culminated a five-year effort to learn what it would take to build a nationwide system for managing low-altitude drone traffic.

"This was our Apollo moment," says Sanders, while decompressing from the most recent testing phase. "On July 24, 1969, Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins splashed down, signaling a new era of aeronautical accomplishment. And now, 50 years later, here we are launching the next generation of unmanned flight with what we’re learning through these pivotal tests."

Imagining the future

The effort to establish an air traffic control system for drones couldn’t be more timely. While many of us imagine military unmanned aircraft buzzing above foreign battlefields around the world or recreational drones flying over fields in our local communities, visions of more useful commercial applications are intensifying interest in making the vehicles safe for common use.

For instance, Wing Aviation LLC, which is owed by Google's parent company, Alphabet, recently received Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) clearance to begin using drones for routine delivery of consumer items. Amazon, meantime, has said it could begin delivering online orders by drone "in coming months." There is also talk of RoboBees buzzing about like drones to help with crop pollination, execute search-and-rescue missions, conduct surveillance, and provide high-resolution weather, climate, and environmental monitoring. And drones are already being used to rapidly inspect elements of super-tall structures such as turbine blades on windmills. And as cheaper alternatives to helicopters, even news organizations are turning to them to report everything from traffic updates to natural disasters and policing activities. Meanwhile, the police themselves are exploring drone use for mapping crime scenes, serving warrants, making high-risk traffic stops, and responding to 911 calls.

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The possibilities are almost endless, which is undoubtedly part of the reason why some experts conservatively predict millions of drones—both commercial and recreational—will be registered for use in the U.S. as soon as next year.

It’s an exciting time for many who envision a world where drones help solve a variety of challenges that human beings often struggle with in industries such as agriculture, financial services, healthcare, insurance, manufacturing, and transportation. But the rise of drones also worries the vast majority of consumers, who wonder if drones will start colliding into one another, falling through their roofs, or crashing onto pedestrians’ heads in the streets—or worse, threatening the safety of passenger planes.

“This is a real concern,” says Ben Marcus, founder and chairman of AirMap, a start-up U.S. airspace services platform for unmanned aircraft. “Drone use is rapidly increasing, and drones occupy the same busy low-altitude airspace shared with manned aviation. Recent drone incursions at airports around the world, such as Gatwick, Heathrow, and Newark—leading to hundreds of canceled or delayed flights and thousands of affected passengers—show that quickly developing solutions to safely integrate drones into national airspaces is critically necessary.”

The FAA receives more than 100 reports of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) each month from pilots, citizens, and law enforcement—a number that has increased dramatically in the past two years.

Automation will be critical

When discussing ways to build an effective system for managing drone traffic, one might picture something similar to how commercial airplanes are directed, where human controllers sit in towers watching monitors while constantly communicating with pilots throughout their flights. But with UTMs, the system is likely to be far more automated given how many drones might be out there flying around at any given time for commercial and recreational purposes.

“The roles of the pilot and air traffic controller are merging,” says Marcus. “While the key driver in the advancement of air traffic control for the airlines was radar, for drones the key will be automation systems. The anticipated broad volume of operations simply cannot be managed by people. We need highly automated flight control and air traffic management systems to safely increase the number of flights in our airspace.”

That automation is where much of the current private-public research is occurring around drones. While NASA and the FAA will be central to defining general safety guidelines, most of the practical work involved in building UTMs will be left to the innovative companies that are driven to compete in this space.

Enabling technology

Initially, drone research and investment could mirror what we see happening with autonomous vehicles, where emerging and established companies are competing to deliver key components that will allow the smart machines to communicate with one another and their controllers, sense their surroundings, and travel a route—with little to no human intervention.

Similar to autonomous vehicles, drones would need to have onboard mechanisms enabling them to communicate with operators on the ground, as well as sensors and other detection technology to help them avoid collisions with other aircraft or obstacles (birds) in their flight path. Each drone would also require a unique identifying code to send or exchange data. And there would need to be underlying artificial intelligence and machine learning to monitor and assist the drones, to keep them flying in their designated air lanes and at government-approved altitudes.

Experts say many of these capabilities will be facilitated by the arrival of 5G communications, which should help speed transmissions and limit latency issues. It’s also possible, they note, that UTM systems will be made even more efficient by edge computing, where critical data and applications are stored and processed on local servers rather than in a remote data center.

While most authorities in the field believe the industry will eventually deliver the critical systems for effective air traffic control, they still worry about corporate competition detouring or stalling progress.

A role for open standards?

Kevin Sartori, co-founder of Auterion, a Switzerland-based start-up with a drone operating system built on PX4 open source software, notes many companies with proprietary technologies will be vying for a piece of the emerging $100 billion drone market. The trouble, he says, is parts technologies might not all use the same communication protocols.

“There will be dozens of different drone manufacturers, and this could become a very fragmented space,” he warns. “The challenge will be to implement communication protocols from drone to ground and from UTM system to UTM system that talk to each other in the same language so they are compatible. We believe that open source, since it is not owned by anyone, will eventually allow the global community to achieve the best performance for UTM systems.”

Along those lines, Auterion and GE Aviation recently announced a collaboration to bring to market a hardware and open source software solution for drone manufacturers and operators seeking to enable commercial drone operations at scale. Separately, Auterion also recently landed a $2 million contract from a U.S. Department of Defense unit to drive innovation in the PX4 ecosystem and compatibility standards in the drone industry.

Interestingly, Auterion’s native country, Switzerland, known for its neutrality, is also out front in spurring UTM innovation built largely around open standards. This year, AirMap and Skyguide, an air navigation service provider, drew 200 operators into a test of the developing Swiss U-space flight information management system for drones. Deployment is slated for early 2020.

The need for public-private partnerships

In the U.S., the FAA notes in a statement that two factors will lead to widespread deployment of advanced drones: “robust and flexible” regulatory procedures that meet necessary safety requirements for complex operations, and systems infrastructure capabilities and requirements that also lead to safe unmanned vehicle operations.

From a regulatory standpoint, the FAA says it’s pursuing a "building block approach," conducting research—like the Corpus Christi test and a previous one in Reno, Nevada—to inform rule-making and policy activities over time. Meanwhile, it leaves operational work to companies.

"This approach aligns with the rapid introduction of small UAS and the desire of the larger community to not hinder use and innovation by treating these new entrants as traditional aircraft with specific communication requirements," the FAA says.

Marcus from AirMap says much of the technology needed to develop unmanned air traffic control already exists today with the aviation industry and telecommunications infrastructures.

"What is needed is the coordination between government and industry to develop standards that will integrate foundational UTM capabilities such as national UAS registries and remote ID capabilities into traditional [air traffic control] systems," he says. "We believe public-private partnerships are the right path forward to make this a reality."

 Drone traffic control: Lessons for leaders

  • Drones aren't just coming; they will soon be everywhere. Traffic is going to be a problem.
  • Private technology companies must be at the forefront of finding air traffic solutions before the FAA makes the decisions for them.
  • Getting agreement from all the interested parties is the key.

This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.