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Drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles, could be the wave of the future. While they’ve been around for a number of years, only recently have they exploded in popularity. Businesses are even seeing the potential they have to offer, which could revolutionize the commercial landscape. The number of drones flying through the sky is expected to increase in the near future.
The FAA even predicts that by 2018, up to 7,500 drones (unmanned aircraft that weigh 55 pounds or less) will be occupying US airspace. All those new drones create issues – they share a limited amount of airspace, leading to possible dangers as the skies become more crowded. Managing the drones becomes the challenge, and to do that, many experts (including both entrepreneurs and NASA engineers) believe that an air traffic control system is vital to ensure things stay safe.
At the moment, the FAA has released very few rules regarding the flight patterns of private drones. Those guidelines that have been released don’t necessarily make for a bright future for commercial drone use. On the positive side, the FAA says drone pilots don’t need an actual pilot license; all they have to do is pass a special test that gives them an operator certificate. On the down side, the FAA maintains that a pilot must have a line of sight to their unmanned vehicle at all times and that the drone can only operate in daylight. These restrictions put a damper on efforts to commercialize drone use, such as Amazon’s efforts to enable drone delivery of products purchased online. The rules have frustrated Amazon so much that the company is threatening to take their drone testing to foreign countries that are more accepting of commercial drone operators.
The FAA cites safety concerns as the reason for the restrictions, in particular the possibility of drones crashing into each other, thus endangering whatever is below them, be they person, building, or vehicle. Some experts also worry about the possibility of commercial drones crashing into traditional aircraft. Even a small drone could cause major damage to an airplane as it takes off.
NASA Air Traffic Control
Many of these concerns can be put to rest if a specialized air traffic control system for drones were enacted. NASA is currently working with several companies to design such a system in the hopes of creating a more controlled environment where drones can travel through the air safely.
One of those systems is an idea from drone startup company Airwave. The goal is to use existing cellphone networks to collect and transmit data to a drone-specific air traffic system. This essentially connects all drones using the system to a central server, which would work in conjunction with civilian air traffic control. The system would be able to use big data analytics to know exactly where each drone is, where they’re headed, and what to do if any problems are encountered. This in turn helps prevent collisions, not just with other drones but with traditional aircraft as well.
The disadvantage to such a system relates to the downsides to using cellphone networks. If coverage is spotty in some areas, such an air traffic control system would be of little use if it can’t communicate with drones. The positive side to using cell networks is that much of the infrastructure is already built. Modifications would be required, but much of the grunt work has been completed. This could mean that the system could be up and running faster than other proposals.
Another company, Excelis, is also partnering with NASA to develop a drone air traffic control system. The monitoring system uses software to leverage a data stream sent to the FAA that helps it keep track of low-flying drone locations. The same system will include working with the FAA to use real-time analytics, enabling the mapping of terrain and weather patterns instantly. This information would be sent to drone pilots on their mobile devices for safe navigation. A major advantage of this proposal is the collaboration with the FAA. This ensures all data used by the system is up to date and analyzed in real-time. Coordination between the FAA and drone pilots also means clearer communication in avoiding potential collisions. Real-time analytics, however, is still a developing field, so getting a system involving that technology will take time and likely won’t be ready to address the growing number of drones in the next few years.
These systems are just the beginning of what will hopefully be an extensive air traffic control network specifically tailored to drones. Future systems would likely need the ability to send commands directly to unmanned aerial vehicles that would allow them to send commands directing drones to other locations in case a collision was about to occur. The Internet of Things will possibly play a role as well, with drones embedded with sensors and web connections helping them to interact with each other.
Whatever strategy is pursued, it must be pursued quickly. Drones have enormous potential – and, as more and more people and companies begin to use drones, the dangers will only increase if there is no supervision. The number of collisions will continue to increase, leading to danger for those on the ground. Even if the drones miss people, houses and vehicles are still vulnerable. This problem, and the need to solve it, will only grow in the future.
What do you think? Are you a drone operator? Concerned about the risks of a sky full of drones? Let us know in the comments.