If even half of the businesses hankering to get drones into US airspace are successful, the skies will soon be a whole lot busier than they are today. Looking to avert gridlock at altitude, NASA has been working on an air traffic management system for drones and today is carrying out its first coordinated testing, looking to see just how well it accommodates flights at different locations across the country.
The sheer volume of companies looking to drones to deliver packages has led many to consider how the airspace might manage all that incoming traffic. Amazon, Google and Walmart are a few of the more notable parties looking to get in on the action, but the concept of flying robotic couriers has inspired a range of drone delivery startups, too.
A few proposals have popped up over the last year aimed at safely integrating drones into US airspace, including one from Amazon itself. The basic idea is that airspace below 500 ft (152 m), which is where general aviation begins, would be set aside for drones. Within that, you could have a low-speed slice of airspace for hobbyist video drones, for example, while another channel could be dedicated to high-speed delivery drones.
NASA has been chipping away at its Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) Traffic Management (UTM) for some time. It says a finalized solution might leverage elements of the approach to traffic management on the ground, which includes a system of roads, rules, lights and lanes. In practice, this could translate to airspace corridors, dynamic geofencing to prevent drones wandering off course, and accounting for things like severe weather, congestion and route planning on the fly.
Today for the first time, the agency is putting this system to the test in multiple locations across the US. Up to 24 drones will be set in flight simultaneously, weather permitting, at various test sites approved by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and will be monitored from the UTM observation room at NASA's Ames Research Center in California.
This will allow drone pilots external to NASA to engage with the UTM from different locations across the country, each flying different types of aircraft with different software clients. Purpose-made UTM displays and apps will be tested at each test site, as the pilots enter flight plans and the UTM checks for conflicts before either accepting or rejecting them.
As far as actual deployment of a drone traffic control system goes, it seems that it is still very much early days. NASA will use the results of these latest tests to continue refining the technology in collaboration with the FAA. Further stages of testing are scheduled over the coming years, which will include investigating how the system performs in densely populated areas and how it can make dynamic adjustments to maintain safe spacing between the drones, both responsive and unresponsive.