Saturday, March 10, 2018

Amazon, Google, Others Are Developing Private Air-Traffic Control for Drones: Validation tests in conjunction with National Aeronautics and Space Administration are slated for the next three months

BALTIMORE—The commercial drone industry wants to create a privately funded and operated air-traffic control network, separate from the current federal system, to enable widespread operations at low altitudes.

Plans to accelerate such efforts, spelled out at a conference here this week, have the backing of companies like Inc., General Electric Co. , Boeing Co. and Alphabet Inc.’s Google. Proponents envision one day using automated cellular and web applications to track and prevent collisions among swarms of small unmanned aircraft flying a few hundred feet above the ground.

In conjunction with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, validation tests are slated over the next three months at a handful of sites. The intent is to develop a “totally different, new way of doing things,” Parimal Kopardekar, NASA’s senior air-transport technologist who first suggested the idea of an industry-devised solution, told approximately 1,000 attendees at the conference.

The coming flights are intended to explore, among other factors, how such a network would interact, when required, with the Federal Aviation Administration’s existing ground-based radars and human controllers. Another major goal is to ensure swift and easy access to data for law-enforcement agencies looking to identify errant, suspicious or hostile drones.

Limited deployment will take at least two years, experts told the conference, and significant engineering and policy hurdles could push that goal out further. But even partial success in the early stages would provide the foundation for an entirely new airspace-management model.

The FAA—which has relied on designing and deploying custom-built technologies and often taken a decade or more to belatedly roll them out—wouldn’t finance or run the anticipated system for drones. The FAA would, however, retain some authority, for example, to temporarily bar drones from certain areas if police or medical-evacuation helicopters planned to pass through them.

For many of the engineering challenges, “the technology to do this is basically off the shelf,” including communication principles and software repurposed from cellphone companies, according to Gur Kimchi, vice president of Amazon Prime Air, which is developing consumer package delivery. An outspoken champion of low-altitude traffic solutions, Mr. Kimchi said answers for some of the most vexing technical questions could “take a year or two.”

Company experts overseeing the air-traffic control initiative will “observe the network,” Mr. Kimchi said in his presentation; if it works as designed, “they don’t have to do anything” to resolve conflicting flight paths. He said sensors developed for autonomous automobiles could assist drone operators in detecting and avoiding midair collisions.

James Burgess, co-lead of Project Wing, Google’s proposed customer delivery and drone integration program, told the conference that given the drone industry’s projected exponential growth, “automation is a better answer for safety, as long as it’s done right.”

Recreational operators have registered more than a million unmanned aerial vehicles with the FAA, and many times that number are expected to use domestic airspace by the end of the decade. Some 70,000 U.S. drones are registered for commercial purposes. According to industry estimates, roughly 1,500 operators, service providers and related startups have swelled the U.S. industry’s ranks in recent years.

Among impediments to growth is the current lack of a reliable and versatile means of traffic control. The FAA is deploying a fledgling system that automatically allows drones to fly in unused airspace close to airports. Much more study and technology refinement is needed, however, before routine flights over metropolitan areas or package delivery to homes can become a reality.

The pace and scope of such advances are “really not an FAA decision,” according to Jay Merkle, a senior FAA program manager and airspace planner. Any new approach to air-traffic control is a decision for the entire drone community, he told the conference, and success is bound to “depend on how well the industry will come together.”

Amazon and other companies have explicitly said industry will shoulder the bulk of the costs.

To promote broad-based support, Amazon and other companies with big ambitions in the drone world stress that their focus is on finding answers to serve the widest possible range of operators. The objective is to allow various types of drones equipped with disparate communication links to talk to each other through web-based applications or other compatible data-transfer methods.

The model roughly parallels today’s cellular systems, switch seamlessly switch between towers and service providers depending on the phone customer’s location.

Performance data and safety incidents would be available to the FAA and all others on the planned system.

Mr. Kimchi’s stressed that whatever system is finally agreed on, all operators must be able to benefit, because “airspace is only as safe as the least safe element.”

An essential feature of the proposed system would be a typically narrow geographical focus, partly to simplify the design and keep a lid on costs. Drones crisscrossing a carefully defined area would be able to communicate directly with nearby unmanned aircraft. But operators of those vehicles normally wouldn’t need, or have access to, tracking or route information of drones operating further away.

As the network is now conceived, there would be mobile applications “to show what’s happening around you, but not what’s happening across the United States” or even another part of the same state, Mr. Burgess pointed out in his remarks.

Original article can be found here ➤

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