Alan Levin of BloombergBusiness wrote a piece titled “Google Wants a Piece of Air-Traffic Control for Drones” he talks about how Google, the “search-engine pioneer is joining some of the biggest companies in technology, communications and aviation — including Amazon.com Inc., Verizon Communications Inc. and Harris Corp.” to work on the next generation of air-traffic control system. The next generation system that we will need to manage the expected 30,000+ drones that will be flying above our heads by 2020.
As I’ve written about before, NASA, not the FAA, has taken the lead. They are sponsoring an upcoming conference to discuss how this next generation air-traffic control system will work. NASA created an open invitation for companies, academic institutes, non-corporate organizations and individuals to participate in the discussion.
According to NASA, we need to build this system to solve the follow problem:
Many beneficial civilian applications of UAS have been proposed, from goods delivery and infrastructure surveillance, to search and rescue, and agricultural monitoring. As UAS operations require interactions with a mix of general aviation aircraft, helicopters and gliders, there is a strong need to safely accommodate all of these vehicles at lower altitudes. Currently, there is no established infrastructure to enable and safely manage the widespread use of low-altitude airspace and UAS operations, regardless of the type of UAS. A UAS traffic management (UTM) system for low-altitude airspace is needed, much like today’s surface vehicles that operate within a system consisting of roads, lanes, stop signs, rules, and lights, regardless of whether the vehicle is automated or driven by a human.
More than 14 companies, including heavy weights like Google, Amazon and Verizon, have already inked agreements with NASA to help device what being called the “Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) Traffic Management (UTM).”
NASA’s short-term goal is the development of the UTM to safely enable low-altitude airspace and UAS operations in the next five years. The longer term vision is to “safely enable the anticipated dramatic increase in density of all low-altitude airspace operations. “
Unlike the current system, the UTM is planned to be largely computer controlled. Humans will still be in charge, but software will make the split-second decisions need to manage thousands of drones. To put things in scope, we have 10,000-12,000 airplanes above the United States at any time, compare that to the expected 30,000 drones. When you understand the scope, it’s clear why software will need to be used.
Where does Google see itself fitting in?
“We think the airspace side of this picture is really not a place where any one entity or any one organization can think of taking charge,” Dave Vos, who heads Google’s secretive Project Wing, told Bloomberg News in his most expansive comments on Google’s vision to date. “The idea being that it’s not ‘Google is going to go out and build a solution and everyone else has to subscribe to it.’ The idea really is anyone should be free to build a solution.”
Interestingly enough, Google still hosted it’s own conference last June to “share its vision of air-traffic control.”
Google called competitors and government agencies to its own conference in June to share its vision of air-traffic control. The foundation of any system must be the ability to trust that all participants will reliably identify themselves and their locations, Vos said. The airspace must be open to any drones willing to follow the rules.
While Amazon isn’t being as gung-ho:
Amazon has been tight-lipped about what it wants in a drone air-traffic system. Gur Kimchi, vice president of the company’s drone delivery division, Amazon Prime Air, issued a statement saying everyone in the industry “must work together.” Kimchi, who will deliver a key-note speech on July 28 at NASA’s conference, said he would discuss more details then.
This problem won’t be solved by just one group in my opinion, and there is room for the best ideas to win under NASAs watch. Room for smaller upstart companies like Precision Hawk to make their own contribution:
PrecisionHawk, a Raleigh, North Carolina, drone company with about 100 employees, began developing its own drone traffic control system because the large agriculture and oil companies it flies for wanted something to keep tabs on unmanned flights. “Our clients need it,” Tyler Collins, the program’s director, said.
In a recent demonstration over a North Carolina cattle farm, Collins and his team intentionally steered a quad-copter drone toward an imagined crop duster at work on an adjacent farm, the kind of hazardous scenario PrecisionHawk employees have seen in the real world.
A no-fly zone alert appears on an operator’s smartwatch Photographer: Jason Arthurs/Bloomberg
Within seconds an alert popped up on the operator’s smartwatch: “WARNING, nearing no-fly zone.” When the operator ignored the warning, an autopilot took over and flew the whirring machine back to safety.
PrecisionHawk’s system can automatically block its drones from flying into danger, such as around airports and other aircraft. And it makes a drone’s real-time flight track available so others can stay away.
Thats some pretty cool technology. I expect some more cool technology to be borne from this conference as well.