The skies of the near future will be increasingly packed with drones, surveying, snapping photos and delivering an array of goods. A network with that many moving parts needs some structure, so Nanyang Technological University (NTU) is developing an air traffic control system for drones in Singaporean airspace, exploring ideas like geofencing, designated flight lanes and ground stations that track all airborne UAVs.

NTU obviously isn't the first to tackle an idea this fundamental to the success of the commercial drone industry. In the US, the Federal Aviation Authority's (FAA) strict laws have been a slowly-adapting thorn in Amazon's side, as the retail giant pushes to get its delivery drones off the ground. NASA has been testing its own UAV traffic management system, and universities in Canada and Australia have also proposed systems that might help drones integrate into urban airspace.

The NTU project is borrowing some of these ideas and developing new ones, studying how they can fit the needs of Singapore and the Asia Pacific region in general.

"At NTU, we have already demonstrated viable technologies such as UAV convoys, formation flying and logistics, which will soon become mainstream," says Professor Low Kin Huat, lead researcher on the project. "This new traffic management project will test some of the new concepts developed with the aim of achieving safe and efficient drone traffic in our urban airways."

The system would be made up of designated take off and landing zones, and once in the air, the drones would be directed along specified corridors, essentially building an invisible system of roads in the air. Sensitive locations, like airports and power stations, could be geofenced off, to prevent wandering UAVs from taking any potentially hazardous shortcuts.

Coordinating stations may be established to keep everything in order. From these facilities, aerial traffic can be monitored and adjusted, making sure the drones are flying where they're supposed to, at the right speeds, and at a safe distance apart from each other.

Current technology might not be up to the task of putting these ideas into practice just yet, so another aim of the project is to research and develop drone systems that can handle smart and safe path-finding, and collision detection and avoidance. Autonomous vehicles and some higher-end drones have already mastered these skills, so they shouldn't be too far out of reach: it's a matter of designing drones that seamlessly slot into the proposed network.

The bigger challenge in setting up a system like this might be the legal and safety issues that arise. To help direct the regulations surrounding the implementation, the team is running computer simulations of various scenarios to determine the safest and most efficient routes, altitudes and emergency procedures.

"We will also look into proposing safety standards, for instance how high UAVs should fly and how far they should be flying above buildings, taking privacy concerns and laws into consideration, and to suggest recommended actions during contingencies," says co-investigator, Mohamed Faisal Bin Mohamed Salleh.

The concept and simulation phase of the four-year project is expected to wind up by the end of 2017, and testing of new UAVs developed for the system will begin the following year.

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