In the past year, the world has seen drone technology skyrocket to never-before-seen heights. Drones have become a staple in warfare for militaries around the globe, a medium for thrill-enthusiasts to capture life from a bird’s-eye-view, and a means for companies to deliver products to customers without having to move a muscle. If producers of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), another name for drones, continue to develop their technical capacities at such a high rate, skies everywhere will soon be crowded with these vehicles. This exciting growth will provide governments, corporations, and civilians with new opportunities that would vastly expand our technological network. However, there is one obstacle that stands in the way of a world engulfed in UAS: an efficient way to manage the air traffic presented by the autonomous devices. It goes without saying that controlling drone traffic is far more extensive than the typical air traffic control systems that are in place for commercial and private flights. Drones fly at far lower altitudes, are much smaller than normal aircrafts, and are surprisingly expensive to regulate, costing around $1,000 per commercial flight with the current human monitoring system in place (1). New technologies developed by organizations such as DARPA and NASA hope to bring regulated drone aviation into common practice.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has been working to develop an “Aerial Dragnet” program “to conduct persistent, wide-area surveillance of small unmanned aerial systems (UASs) in urban terrain on a city-wide scale” (2). At the moment, drone tracking is done mostly by the human eye. Obviously, this provides multiple limitations as human accountability cannot handle the burden of tracking every single UAS in the sky. The centerpiece of DARPA’s plan would include a “long endurance” or fixed instrument drone that would provide a net of surveillance covering a specific area of a city (or any given area). According to reports, “DARPA’s plan would include a network of surveillance nodes that can track slow, low-flying drones without the need for a direct line of sight…the whole thing is meant to be cost-effective and highly-scalable for larger coverage areas” (2). In other words, one massive drone would hover above an area, monitor the smaller drones flying beneath it, and relay this information to a UAS control system at a central location. The long-term goal of the Aerial Dragnet program is to provide militaries with a simple way to track every drone flying in an urban area, ultimately for use in combat zones.
NASA has also been working closely with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to provide civilian-piloted drones with a safe monitoring system they call Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM). Parimal Kopardekar, manager of NASA’s Safe Autonomous Systems Operations project and lead of NASA’s UTM efforts, stated “UTM is designed to enable low-altitude civilian UAS operations by providing pilots information needed to maintain separation from other aircrafts by reserving areas for specific routes, with consideration of restricted airspace and adverse weather conditions” (3). UTM, in nature, is a cloud-based software system that can simultaneously regulate the activity of numerous drones in a given space. NASA tested this system in a remote, private-use airfield called Crows Landing, about 18 miles from Modesto, California. In this closed location, NASA was able to use “geofencing,” a virtual barrier used to define a geographical boundary through radio frequencies or global position systems, in order to monitor and enhance flight testing. Each drone was tested on the measures of reliability, accuracy, and delay in regards to a predetermined flight plan given to them by pilots. A team working on one specific drone would monitor the drone’s “ability to maintain flight plans in windy conditions with radar, cellular signals, ADS-B and GPS provided by the UAS ground control station to the UTM system” (3). Overall, the tests conducted to determine the effectiveness of UTM have been a success. In the controlled test zone at Crows Landing, NASA was able to integrate operator platforms and ground infrastructure that readily analyzed the activity of the drones in the air. The next step is to further validate the system through FAA test sites and expand the network to other entities outside of the government.
Drone traffic control systems in the United States are slowly but steadily taking shape. Perhaps the most pressing issue that these developments face is the policymaking schedule that is set by Congress that elongates the process for the FAA to enact new regulations. It took the FAA a year to issue the current rules for drone flying after the U.S. government ordered the regulations to be finalized. As a result, companies such as Amazon and DHL find themselves heading to countries across the pond that have faster implementation of regulations. A large reason for this is that air traffic control in the United Kingdom is controlled by a company called NATS through a public-private partnership, as opposed to directly by the government. The U.K.’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), their version of America’s FAA, is not inhibited by any policymaking schedule, making it far quicker in enacting policies for the testing of drones. For example, the U.K. has already allowed drones to fly out of an operator’s sight line in order to test their responsiveness, an act that is currently illegal in the US without a waiver. If the U.S. is to become an active participant in the race for advanced drone use, it will need to consider shortening the list of regulations limiting the testability of the swiftly-developing technology.
(1) Kuhn, Kenneth, William Welser IV, and Jia Xu. "How to Prevent Drones Colliding in Crowded Skies." Newsweek. Newsweek, 19 Sept. 2016. Web. 9 Oct. 2016.
(2) Mintpress News Deck. "DARPA Developing 'Wide-Area Persistent Surveillance' to Track Drones."Www.mintpressnews.com. MintPress News, 20 Sept. 2016. Web. 6 Oct. 2016.
(3) NASA Ames. "First Steps Toward Drone Traffic Management." NASA.gov. NASA, 19 Nov. 2015. Web. 10 Oct. 2016.
(4) Glaser, April. "In the Race for Drone Delivery, the U.K. Is Way Ahead of the U.S." Recode. Vox Media, 03 Oct. 2016. Web. 10 Oct. 2016.
Image: © Alexander Kolomietz | Dreamstime.com - Flying drone in the sunset skies
Carlos was born in Chicago, Illinois and came to USC to study psychology with a minor in Business Administration. He has worked in healthcare and finance for the past two summers. Carlos also helped co-found Trojan Marketing Group, a group that develops marketing strategies for large companies. Carlos has been with Global Intelligence Trust since summer of 2016. He am most interested in writing about innovation in the technology sector and aerospace developments. Apart from academics, Carlos enjoys playing volleyball, hiking, and traveling.