Future Tech

Why Air Traffic Control Will Be Necessary for Future Drone Use

Rick Delgado 23-06-2015

Drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles, could be the wave of the future Drone Wars: How UAV Tech Is Transforming the Future of War A revolution is taking place right now on the battlefields of the world: wars are fought increasingly by drones. Read More . 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 5 Amazing Uses for Drones in the Future Unmanned aerial vehicles, more commonly called drones, are now infamous for their surveillance capabilities, but like most tools, the usefulness of a drone depends on who's in control. Read More , 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.


FAA Guidelines

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 Amazon Delivery Drones, Facebook Hack, Kindle Fire Vs iPad Air [Tech News Digest] Amazon aerial drones, Facebook friends list hack, Google Nexus handsets vulnerability discovered, Black Friday numbers are released, Steam introduces user reviews, and the Kindle Fire HDX is compared favorably to the iPad Air. Read More 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 Facebook Goes Down for an Hour, As Drone Crashes into White House [Tech News Digest] Facebook suffers outage, drone crashes into White House, Microsoft announces financials, Nest replaces Dropcams, Funny or Die thinks weather is funny, and the BMW ad celebrating ignorance. Read More , 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.


The Future

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 What Is the Internet of Things? What is the Internet of Things? Here's everything you need to know about it, why it's so exciting, and some of the risks. Read More 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 7 Industries Drones Are Set to Revolutionize Seven industries that are ready and braced to be (mostly positively) impacted – if not revolutionized – by drones. Read More – 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.

Image Source: Parrot AR via Wikimedia; Radio Mast via Pixabay; Drones via Wikimedia; Drone Crash via YouTube; drone control screen via Wikimedia

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  1. Anonymous
    June 29, 2015 at 8:28 pm

    They are NOT drones. They are remote operated aircraft! Drones are used by military and follow flight directions programmed before taking off and very rarely need any human help. People need too use the dammed brain they have and realize that!

  2. Anonymous
    June 26, 2015 at 6:45 pm

    How are drones different than remote control model planes? Model planes currently are not under FCC jurisdiction.

    • Anonymous
      June 29, 2015 at 8:26 pm

      they are not drones. They are remote controlled planes and quadcoptors. People just do not want too do some research and get the names correct. As true drones which are operated by the military and NASA fly preprogrammed flight paths and most of the time do not need human intervention.

  3. Anonymous
    June 26, 2015 at 3:10 am

    While I do see some uses for drones there's a huge downside. At the time I'm writing this they are very limited as to how much weight they can carry and the expectation is that they will be an instant delivery system. The fuel expended vs the fuel required delivering in traditional methods is going to be expensive especially since one drone is required for each small package and must travel from it's starting point to it's delivery point and back to it's start again effectively doubling fuel usage. Any other carrier is able to deliver huge truckloads of packages in one trip out and one trip back and you don't have to worry about breaking through someone's window by accident. While the "neat factor" plays into getting these types of deliveries I just don't see how they become economical without charging maybe double what Fedex, UPS, USPS charge.

  4. Anonymous
    June 26, 2015 at 1:09 am

    "Christopher HasARightToPrivacy". Too right. And so do I. Fly your "hobbyist" drone over my property and you will not see it again. Remember this, if you can control it, so can I!

    • Anonymous
      June 26, 2015 at 3:11 am

      Good point!

    • Anonymous
      June 28, 2015 at 2:58 pm

      Sorry but case law says that you do not have the right to damage or confiscate my property just because it's flying over your property.

  5. Anonymous
    June 25, 2015 at 11:12 am

    I think whatever system is devised, it should NOT restrict the freedom of hobbyist flyers whatsoever and ONLY pertain to autonomous drones flying above the 500ft ceiling.

    • Anonymous
      June 28, 2015 at 2:59 pm

      Correction: Apparently the ceiling is 400ft - not 500ft.