Repost from MIT Technology Review:
How do you keep small drone aircraft safe in the world’s busiest national airspace? One idea is to have them use cellphone networks to feed data back to an air traffic control system made just for drones.
A startup called Airware is working with NASA on a project exploring how to manage the swarms of commercial drones expected to start appearing in U.S. skies. The four-year program will create a series of prototype air traffic management systems and could shape how widely commercial drones can be used. Airware’s main business is selling control software and hardware to drone manufacturers and operators.
The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration has yet to propose rules to govern the use of commercial robotic aircraft in U.S. skies. But it predicts that 7,500 unmanned craft weighing 55 pounds (25 kilograms) or less will be operating in the U.S. by 2018. There is strong interest from agriculture, mining, and infrastructure companies in using drones for tasks like inspecting crops or gathering geospatial data (see “10 Breakthrough Technologies 2014: Agricultural Drones”).
That could mean gridlock in the skies, or at least increasingly unsafe traffic patterns. “You will have competing interests trying to use the same space,” says Jesse Kallman, head of business development and regulatory affairs at Airware. “Imagine Amazon trying to deliver packages in an area that an energy company is trying to survey their power lines.”
The first prototype to be developed under NASA’s project will be an Internet-based system. Drone operators will file flight plans for approval. The system will use what it knows about other drone flights, weather forecasts, and physical obstacles such as radio masts to give the go-ahead.