NASA aims for air traffic control system for commercial drones

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air controlAgency seeks partners for a multi-year project to develop a protocol the FAA can implement for the safe commercial use of drones in the U.S.

NASA has launched an initiative aimed at developing a traffic management program for the commercial use of drones, much like standard air traffic control manages airspace for commercial aviation.

The multi-year program is essential because commercial use of such devices — quadcopters, octocopters, and other remote-controlled aircraft — is currently banned in the United States by the Federal Aviation Administration.

That means that even as more and more individuals are legally flying consumer-grade unmanned aerial systems (UAS), known colloquially as drones, from companies like Parrot, DJI, and 3D Robotics, high-profile commercial efforts like Amazon’s announced plan to use the devices to deliver packages are currently grounded.

But now NASA is looking to help the FAA come up with a regimen known as a UAS traffic management system. The goal of the program is to find a way to safely manage the simultaneous low-altitude use — from ground level up to 400 or 500 feet — of these devices by multiple companies or institutions.

Among the first partners helping the space agency create the program is Airware, a San Francisco developer of drone operating software. In an interview, Jesse Kallman, Airware’s head of business development and regulatory affairs, said he’d been working with Parimal Kopardekar, the NASA principal investigator who is developing and managing the new program, since spring.

Though it’s the FAA that manages aircraft in the United States, NASA frequently works hand in hand with the FAA on technology transfer. “They do all kinds of research on manned aviation,” Kallman said of NASA. “They spend their efforts on refining technology and they will transfer that technology over to the FAA to implement.”

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Ultimately, he added, the hope is that commercial drone operators can file a flight plan and be certain that no one else will be flying a device through the same space at the same time — much as the manned air traffic management system ensures.

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As for its own work with NASA, Airware is setting up the agency with some of its partners since, as an operating software developer, it doesn’t make the drones themselves. Any standard that comes out of the NASA effort, Kallman said, would have to work with “our ecosystem of compatible hardware and software vendors, and different types of sensors, cameras, and collision avoidance systems.”

Still, though the program won’t be completed for years, Kallman expects elements of the work to emerge into the commercial world in the interim — “things like integrating new types of hardware and software, or collision avoidance.”